The Rise and Fall of Liberal Capitalism

Contrary to what those of us on the Left are prone to thinking, liberal capitalism is not a many-headed monster spreading a black stain of poverty and death across the planet.

No, really. It isn’t.

So much has been achieved over the century or so during which liberal capitalism – spearheaded by the USA – has risen to become the unchallenged economic theory that rules all our lives. In 1900 not a single country in the world had a ‘one man one vote’ democracy. In 2015, 63% of all countries were electoral democracies. With all its flaws, despite all the corruption, the lies, the deceit, the manipulation, the coercion, the conflict, the tribalism, the self-aggrandisation and egotism, the arrogance, ignorance and greed, that accompanies capitalist democracy, the mere fact that it is now universally recognized that human societies run better when people have a say in their own destiny represents a major and significant change in our collective consciousness.

Despite the glaring inequality in the division of wealth around the world, we have made huge strides in reducing global poverty. The population of the world is growing, but the proportion of the global population living in poverty is declining – contrary to the gloomy predictions of the mid-20th century about the impact of significant population growth on the world’s ability to feed itself.   Human compassion coupled with human ingenuity can achieve amazing and incredible things when it is given the the right conditions to flourish.

It is the nature of news that what we see are the remaining problems and conflicts. We never get to see the big picture. Never is this more clearly the case than it is regarding war and violence. Compared to any other era of human history, we life in the least violent times ever. Wars have reduced in frequency and their death-toll is typically lower. Violence generally is regarded as far less acceptable, and there is universal recognition, if not universal acceptance and implementation, of the concept of civil justice. There are international bodies established specifically to advocate and maintain peaceful relations between nations, and others which hold national and factional leaders to account for instigating wars, or for committing war crimes. The very concept of a ‘war crime’ would have been unknown prior to the 20th century. Although we see images of war and violence on the news all the time – perhaps because we see such images – it is no longer generally acceptable for national leaders to engage in war as just another political tool. When they do so, they generally need to create an emotive story (usually to do with ‘keeping the peace’) in order to achieve the popular backing they need.

This is not to deny or belittle the huge suffering war, oppression and poverty still cause to far too many individuals; but if we deny the decrease in global poverty and the huge reduction in the number and scale of conflicts brought about over the past few decades, we deny ourselves the agency for positive change. It becomes far too easy for people to throw up their hands and claim ‘this is how it has always been, and always will be’. That is not true. We always have a choice in how we respond to a crisis. We can be heartless and self-centred, and pretend it has nothing to do with us. Or we can recognize our common humanity, reach out, and try to help.

The fact that we have organisations dedicated to world peace, to international co-operation, to universal justice, to relieving poverty, delivering medical aid, and helping people recover from natural disasters; to research, development and innovation – all these result from individuals having a say in the way things are run. Individuals who do not want to see another generation slaughtered because of a dispute between imperial princes. Individuals who want to make the world a better place. Individuals who recognize that people of other nations, other cultures, other religions, are not enemies but individuals like themselves. It is  when we start denying that and labelling certain groups of people ‘the enemy’ we put these gains in jeopardy.

As Johann Norberg says in his book ‘Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward To The Future’

“…the only way for terrorists to win is if the victims overreact, dismantle civil liberties and blame whole groups for the actions of a few. Doing so stirs up the very conflicts that the terrorists seek, and makes it easier to recruit terrorists and continue the battle.”

‘Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward To The Future, J. Norberg, OneWorld, 2016)

Look at what we’ve done together. Look at what liberal capitalism has achieved.

And then look at the problems it creates.

So much change, so fast. So many old, traditional ways swept aside. So many certainties called into doubt.

There is something called the “theory of constraints” which basically says that as soon as you solve one problem, you create another. What you must do is set the direction of travel, and then set about identifying the most pressing problem that is preventing you from making progress. Tackle that, and then look for the next thing that is preventing progress. You can never declare the job done and walk away. There will always be another constraint.

Such is life. We are on a journey – from the cradle to the grave – and everything we achieve, individually or together, is just a waymark on that journey. Liberal capitalism has served us well, but we need to move on to the next stage. We need to overcome the constraints to progress we encounter now, not the ones we encountered in the past.

We are only just beginning to identify the issues liberal capitalism and its underpinning theory of rapid growth causes. Pollution and climate change are the obvious ones. If our exploitation of natural resources outstrips nature’s ability to recover its equilibrium, we could ultimately jeopardise our very existence on the planet. We need to understand our relationship with the physical world and manage it sustainably.

But rapid growth also brings with it rapid social change – new technologies, new business models, and new relationships between individuals, communities, nations, tribes, and corporate enterprises. This also can outstrip the ability of human societies to regain their equilibrium. The impact of rapid change is being felt now with the seismic political shocks of Brexit (carrying with it the potential for a break-up of the existing European consensus) and the Trump administration. These political events are seismic because we did not see them coming. We did not recognize how fragmented and dysfunctional Western society was becoming. It remains to be seen how much of the individual freedom we had begun to take for granted in American and European societies has become truly embedded in our culture and how much was an intellectual gloss which merely showed us what was possible. I have a feeling Trump’s presidency will prove the acid test; the mere fact that he was democratically elected to the US Presidency shows how many individuals still hanker after the comforting certainties of prescriptive thinking, espoused by all organized religions, political movements, kings, emperors and dictators throughout human history. When we are bewildered by the fake choices intrinsic to the capitalist system, it is tempting to believe in a glorious leader who will sort everything out for us. When old certainties are swept away by new thinking, there is great emotional attraction in blindly, unquestioningly, following a book that tells us what to believe and what to think. We are, after all, only human. We want to feel safe. We want something to hold onto when the world is changing around us so fast. Its really hard to just enjoy the ride through the chaotic adaptive system when we are so wedded to the idea of order and stability. Freedom is hard work, and scary.

But most of us didn’t realize that, either. When we could all take freedom for granted, we didn’t understand the nature of it. The responsibility of it. Trump makes those responsibilities increasingly apparent. If they are truly embedded in our cultural psyche, we will come together and stand up for those freedoms. If they aren’t, we will be content to let them go and retreat to the comfort-zone of being told what to think. As always, many will be quick to protest; but the eventual outcome will depend how many are prepared for the hard graft and the long-term resistance. How many will still espouse science when science is out of fashion. How many will still espouse freedom when freedom is out of fashion. How many will still espouse peace, love and learning when violence, hate and ignorance are in fashion.

If we want to sustain the freedoms we have won, we must light torches that can be handed over to others when we are overwhelmed, cut down, or fall by the wayside. I do not know whether the current political upheavals will prove to be a blip on the American and European journey, or whether the torch of enlightenment will fall from our grasp. I do not know what the impact of increasing freedom and prosperity in the developing world will be, or how much (if at all) it relies on the West for support. I don’t know, and not knowing makes me anxious if not downright scared.

But one thing I am sure of is that the torch burns far too strongly in the world to be extinguished. And that gives me hope.

Sue Rule

January 2017




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