Is George Osborne questioning capitalism?

Is George Osborne joining other Tories who have lately voiced concerns about capitalism, indeed is he suggesting capitalism itself is “morally repugnant”?

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Jules Peck works with companies on Flourishing Enterprise strategic innovation, is a trustee at think tanks the new economics foundation and ResPublica and chair of Edelman’s Sustainability Group; Jules is the co-author of Citizen Renaissance and was the director of David Cameron’s Quality of Life Review

There seems to be consensus on these pages that last month’s budget was both socially and ecologically regressive.

However, in calling aggressive tax avoidance “morally repugnant” in the budget, is George Osborne joining other Tories who have lately voiced concerns about capitalism and indeed is he, perhaps inadvertently, suggesting capitalism itself is “morally repugnant”?

We live in interesting times. Whilst it has been the left who have traditionally been critical of capitalism, now parts of the right are coming out as closet capitalism-skeptics.

Red-Tory Phillip Blond has long called for a new mutualist economics; an ex-Quality of Life Review colleague of mine, Zac Goldsmith MP, has just backed Ed Milliband’s views on capitalism; and another of Osborne’s colleagues, Charlie Elphicke MP, has now attacked Google for paying no tax in the UK.

So what should we make of this new found political scepticism of capitalism and what of the wider debate in society of which this is a quiet, but perhaps rising echo?


See also:

An entrepreneurial, responsible private sector is key to sustainable growth 15 Mar 2012

Where are you on the political spectrum: Red Tory, Blue Labour or Green Democrat? 11 Mar 2012

Alec Baldwin, not Michael Douglas, will improve corporate ethics 2 Mar 2012

It isn’t “anti-business” to oppose high pay for mediocrity 24 Feb 2012

Transparency, accountability, responsibility: Miliband’s “responsible capitalism” principles 3 Feb 2012


And as the debate on reform or replacement of capitalism increases how might we see left and right respond?

What is capitalism?

Firstly what do we mean when we say ‘capitalism’? Well there are many perspectives on this but most cohere around certain key constructs which themselves drive capitalism’s core growth requirement.

It is an economic system in which specialised producers produce commodities for markets but not for their own subsistence. Capitalists have a monopoly of ownership of the means to production and must sell this production onto the market to receive their own means to subsistence and to purchase new means for production.

Along with these means for production they buy the labour of workers who own no means of production or too little to produce commodities on their own and so have to sell their labour to these producers.

Capital requires a return and competition between seekers of capital drives for maximisation of these returns. Where these producer/capitalists and workers interact is the market.

The motor of this market is competition as producers compete for market share and thus have to reinvest profits into increased productivity-enhancing technologies or to force down input costs of labour or means for production and grow to find economies of scale.

As workers’ wages have to be lower than the total value of goods, collectively the workers can never buy all their production and so new customers and markets are continually sought by the system. Grow or die is the rule of this market.

This, it would seem, is capitalism in its essence and at its heart is a requirement to grow. You can have market economics without capitalism, you can have various forms of capitalism from neo-liberalised Anglo-US ‘free-market’ forms to European and Scandinavian mixed market social-capitalism and Chinese state-capitalism. But they all seem to require growth.

Capitalism red in tooth and claw

Google’s response to Charlie Elphicke MP’s outrage that the company pays no UK tax is that:

“We have an obligation to our shareholders to set up a tax efficient structure and our present structure is compliant with the tax rules in all the countries where we operate.”

Bizarrely, somehow Google actually makes a loss in the UK. So, naughty Google or just doing its job for the shareholders? Some in the business community feel it’s mostly a case of the latter.

As Bill Dodwell of Deloitte said in response to Osborne’s tax avoidance attacks:

“These are not abusive reliefs. These are real reliefs, that people should legitimately be able to claim for running a business.”

In other words this is just ever-efficient capitalism red in tooth and claw. It is just the system doing its job. When Osborne bemoans this side of capitalism he is accused of being anti-business. He might respond that he is not anti-business nor is he anti-capitalist but just against certain aspects of business practice.

But is this naïve? Some suggest that just as it would be naïve to bemoan a shark its feeding habits, it is naïve to bemoan capitalism its own. Just like a shark, capitalism just does what it is designed to do. And it does it very well.

Critics will say that, though an enlightened law maker might seek to shore up such tax avoidance ‘loopholes’, capitalism, if it is going to do its job, will find new ways to play the system for the sake of short-term profit-maximisation. And evidence suggests it will use its power of influence over policy-making to ensure reforms do not hinder this key role of short term profit maximisation.

As an example of this, Robert Watson, chief scientist at DEFRA and former head of the IPCC, says:

“A group of companies have opposed the climate change deal and made the two degree target much more difficult, if not impossible. They have put the whole world at risk.”

One does not have to be of a socialist bent to believe capitalism, at least in its current form, is fatally flawed. One only has to listen to people like investment guru Jeremy Grantham to hear the rumblings of an ongoing mainstream disquiet with capitalism.

Campaigners who seek reform or replacement of capitalism suggest that at best corporate social responsibility and ‘sustainable capitalism’ is only able to contribute to progress in minor ways at the margins of the market. Their fear is that these efforts can in fact hold back more fundamental change by obfuscation and giving the illusion of progress.

Others will counter that only by pushing the envelope of what is possible in capitalism 1.0 will we see its limits and what reforms are needed.

Evidence does show that, whilst some corporate actors might be making real efforts to reduce emissions or source resources like timber and water sustainably, overall the capitalism-machine is increasing its exponential devastation of the natural world and the continual commodification of everything from air to child care.

Some leading CEOs are outspoken in pushing the boundaries of capitalism.

Unilever’s Paul Polman insisted:

“I don’t work for the shareholder I work for the customer.”

While Kingfisher’s Ian Cheshire said:

“Imagining a new, sustainable capitalism, we need to radically redesign our business models with less emphasis on growth and more on wellbeing.”

But many others are at best silent or actively lead companies doing their best to lobby against progress.

The problem, according to many campaigners for change, is that capitalism is just not up to the task at hand. It was designed to maximise short term returns to capital, and, with the best will in the world, it is not often able to take account of its effects on people and planet.

Wherever one sits in this debate it is perhaps time for us to consider what might replace capitalism, if only to inform its possible reform. If capitalism can make the grade then great; if not then the sooner we understand that the better.

“It’s the economy, stupid”

So is it perhaps time for politicians of all hues to consider the possibility capitalism can’t just be tweaked, that it is not up to the job? Perhaps instead of blaming the left for an overbearing state having led to our ‘broken society’ should not the Tories recognise ‘it’s the market, stupid’?

Some would argue Reaganite and Thatcherite neo-liberalism started the rot which has brought us to where we are and that Bill Clinton’s rescinding of the Glass-Steagall Act (pdf) set in train events in the financial system which brought us to our current ‘debtonation’.

Perhaps if the left are to blame for anything it is not an overbearing state sailing too close to the socialist wind but one which in fact failed to intervene sufficiently and left the blind ‘invisible hand’ at the helm of the ship?

Smith versus Marx – the least bad economic system?

Ever since Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 and then Karl Marx’s Manifesto in 1848, political economists have debated whether capitalism is the most effective economic system to deliver to our needs or whether it is merely a wealth-concentrating ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’.

Some would argue capitalism is the least bad option and it has done an OK job of improving the lives of billions and freeing much of the world from hunger and disease. Others would fundamentally disagree arguing imperialist expansionism has ridden roughshod over the rights of people and planet for centuries.

Post-2008 it is certainly hard to argue with Professor David Harvey’s suggestion Marx’s ‘contradictions of capital’ theory (in simple terms capitalism ‘will eat itself’) is coming true in front of our eyes.

An observer of history might say Marx got more right than Smith. Capitalism’s very heart, the capital system, is in meltdown. The dynamics of capitalist economics seem intent on pushing us dangerously beyond safe limits. Smith’s system was also underpinned by a logic reliant on an understanding of the human mind’s rationality which has now been soundly debunked by science and psychology.

The question for many is now whether capitalism can be reformed or whether we need a fundamentally new system.

Reformation and eco-capitalism

There is a rising consensus we need to ‘dethrone growth’ as our objective for society. Some in the sustainable development world are now going further and being explicit that it is either no longer safe to continue to grow the global macro economy or indeed that, like it or not, growth is already at an end.

It is becoming clear to many that ‘absolute decoupling’ of the scale and urgency required might have been possible if we had put a Marshall Plan in place when the Club of Rome rang the alarm bells in the 70’s, but, as Paul Gilding is saying, it is just too late now. We had our chance and we missed it in our blind obsession with growth.

Techno-fixes and a whole-economy shift from products to services would have been wonderful, but now nothing short of the discovery of a perpetual motion machine will save us from the inevitable need to cease our exponential push beyond safe planetary limits. Halting global macro growth would, if the poor world is to continue to develop, require a reverse gear to be found in the rich world.

But many still cling to the hope that we can have our cake and eat it. That we can have beyond-growth, steady-state economics within a reformed capitalism; to many, the idea of a new economic paradigm is either unnecessary or too radical or they are too worried about scaring the horses and not being taken seriously by the ‘mainstream’ to consider change.

Others counter that debates about such reform are pointless if one accepts that growth is no longer possible.

And yet, unless and until capitalism can show any potential to reform and solve issues such as increasing inequality, flat-lining wellbeing and runaway climate chaos, it seems only sensible for a debate to be held about what might replace capitalism.

What economic system might replace capitalism?

Perhaps, rather than waiting for capitalism to reform sufficiently, it is worth considering a Plan B. We may indeed learn useful lessons from considering alternatives which can inform such reform.

As we have seen above, the underlying dynamics of capitalism are those of competing capital owners needing to constantly maximise returns, and to pursue a constant ‘rent-seeking’ with all its social and ecological externalities. This dynamic is arguably fundamentally locked into requiring ever more growth.

If one agrees growth is now no longer possible or safe then what form of economics could one envisage to replace capitalism?

This new economics could have as its new objective not growth for growth’s sake, not money or making markets our gods. Its aim could be to maximise the ecological efficiency of delivering to the wellbeing needs of today’s and future people.

It could seek not to rely on growth of the macro-economy. It could recognise the intrinsic value of the natural world with which we are so spiritually linked. It could once again make us stewards not dominators of nature.

It could be framed not by a drive towards efficiency but one of sufficiency and will require a values shift from extrinsic individualist values to intrinsic ones which champion collective, greater-than-self solutions to sustainability challenges.

It could seek to learn from recent breakthroughs from leading thinkers including Nobel Prize winners like Amartya Sen in Welfare Economics, Daniel Kahneman on rationality and Positive Psychology, Elinor Ostrom in the economics of the commons and Joseph Stiglizt in Wellbeing Economics.

This new economy could seek to liberate us all from the roles of ‘passive‘ worker and ‘active’ capitalist to a new social contract based on the understanding that a commons-based economics underpinned by equity is one which could provide the most materially light wellbeing for all. This commons-based economy might be run by and for the people not the state.

What might this mean for business?

As within a natural ecosystem which is in overall stasis, within such an economy there may still be growth of parts of the economy as others shrink. Innovation and dynamism may well be far more crucial and vibrant in such an economy than in our current one.

In the perhaps decades-long transition to such an economics there will be winners and losers. Sectors and enterprises which maximise the ecological efficiency of satisfying real needs will prosper. Those which satisfy too few real needs in too materially-heavy a manner will need to die back.

So, for instance, enterprises satisfying needs for good healthy food, for exercise, for heat, for socialising and for communication might prosper; unaffordable and uneconomic sectors such as leisure aviation will need to die back.

In such an economy we will still need things produced and services undertaken. Much of this activity might be undertaken by co-ops, mutuals, community and employee owned enterprises and family owned enterprises. Some of these might be very large like the Mondragon co-op in Spain which provides employment for 83,000 people, though the question of appropriate scale needs to be carefully thought through.

Already CEOs like Ian Marchant at SSE are championing a flourishing of things like co-operative energy and a whole new class of B-Corp enterprises are springing up in the US.

So if one works today for a shareholder-owned company one might in future be part of something that looks more like Mondragon or John Lewis. There will still be lots of great employment. In fact such a system would seek to maximise the provision of good employment for all.

I call these Flourishing Enterprises as for me they would be enterprises whose role would be to satisfy wellbeing needs in an ecologically sound way within strict science-based limits. The Transition Towns movement, which I am involved with and a huge fan of, has coined the term Transition Enterprises and set out some key principles these might exhibit.

Nimble existing incumbents in markets might be able to transition into being compatible with this new form of economics. Where they do not the niches they currently occupy will see a flourishing of new co-operative and collaborative innovations.

Fertile political territory

Sadly this debate has yet to permeate politics much beyond the Green Party and the left and right seem intent on point scoring, fighting over some ‘middle ground’ and rearranging deckchairs rather than confronting inconvenient truths which point to the need for a debate about alternatives to capitalism.

It seems the long shadow of the ‘red-peril’ and the ecological and human consequences of the collapse of many socialist experiments has for too long stifled this political debate. But it is a debate which is happening outside politics and which politicians of all colours would do well to tune into and join.

Ed Milliband is making ground in questioning capitalism but has done little to envision real reform let alone consider, if reform cannot make the grade, that we may need a replacement of capitalism. The Tories are, as alluded to above, starting to flex their muscles in this debate.

In the meanwhile, the currently predominant Orange Book Lib Dem thinking bears close resemblance to Conservative neo-liberalism and Blairite New Labour dogma and may find less reliance on free markets a challenge.

Whilst it is clear how the left might find much fertile ground in this debate for reinvention and for rising to the challenges of our times, it is perhaps less clear how this might fit with Conservativism. But as currently the Conservatives are in power it is perhaps worth considering the politics of the right more closely.

There are, broadly speaking, two dominant traditions within conservative thought: firstly, the more frequently held paternalistic, One Nation Disraeli tradition; and secondly the Liberal or Libertarian free-market economics, of the small state, and individualism perspective of Burke, Peel, Hayek, Gladstone, Heath and Thatcher.

The latter tradition is most commonly associated with a ‘rational self-interest model’ which underpins neo-classical economics and neo-liberal policy, while the former is more in line with what is known as the ‘embodied mind’ set of values which accepts culture and emotional values are more important than self interest.

It is these values which map best onto an updated economics which puts the interests of the collective good of people and planet ahead of the market.

Conservative thinking and policy has swung between these two traditions, most recently returning towards the former. Progressive Conservatives like Jesse Norman MP and Phillip Blond have largely repudiated Thatcherite values.

Says Blond:

“If conservatism is to be more than just moralism plus the market, the logic of a revivified conservatism must also be applied to the economic sphere.”

He calls for Conservatives to:

“Tie economic policy to the social outcomes they favour… the extension of wealth, assets and the benefits of ecological and social wellbeing to all.”

Cameron has been brave to continue to support alternative measures of progress to GDP and to champion a wellbeing agenda. But at a macro-economic level it is less and less clear where David Cameron and the rest of his party sit on this One Nation to Libertarian continuum.

Whilst Cameron has in the past refused association with the extremes of neoliberal free-market economics, it is as yet not clear if he and Compassionate Conservatism can deliver on Philip Blond’s vision of a post-neoliberal Conservatism.

Indeed, many would say that since taking power in a flurry of ‘hug a hoodie’ and ‘hug a huskie’ progressive noises, project-Cameron has reverted to many old-school Conservative values and policies.

In sum, currently neither left nor right are showing much inclination to envision radical reform let alone replacement of our current economics. The party that gets this right will win the right to power.

The jury is still out on whether capitalism can be reformed or whether we need to evolve and transition over time to a new form of economics. But what is clear is that it is time to debate the issues this blog points to.

If you are interested to join those of us involved in debating these new economy questions please do get in touch: [email protected]


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72 Responses to “Is George Osborne questioning capitalism?”

  1. Warren Pearce

    @TerryWassall @Kerileef @HallyMk1 This is interesting overview of poss post-capitalist initiatives #e4c

  2. Neil Courtman

    Is George Osborne questioning capitalism? by @CitizenJules

  3. Richard Lawson

    I am not, and never have been, a Marxist, but this is interesting:

  4. TheCreativeCrip

    Is George Osborne questioning capitalism? by @CitizenJules

  5. Rick

    Is George Osborne questioning capitalism? by @CitizenJules

Comments are closed.