My thoughts on the view that turbo-charged technological capitalism is churning society faster than we as individuals and groups can cope with. Through the lens of my own bias; that the only way forward is to make society as flexible and adaptable as possible – that the alternative is to be the Native Americans when europeans turned up with guns and industry.
And why I rail against the fetishising of aid whilst applying massive tariffs on manufactured/processed goods.
It impoverishes poor societies by keeping them in stasis while the rest of us get to move forward. By giving them expensive tractors to churn out coffee beans for export at $1/tonne while preventing them from selling ground coffee retail products for $100/tonne: “The single-market will process those coffee beans for you. and we’ll do it for the purpose of ‘public safety’ so we can ensure the our consumers get a verifiable product. By the way, would you like a tractor?”
So, smug NGO’s swan around developing countries in Toyota Landcruisers on their saintly mission to provide ‘development assistance’. Makes for great stories around the dinner table, and smashing gap year opportunities for young William when he gets through his A-Levels next year.
I look at how far western economies have advanced in the last twenty years, and I look at what we term ‘the developing world’; still selling unprocessed tobacco and coffee to the likes of Kraft/Nestle processing plants in western europe. Then have a look at the tariff rates we impose for raw unprocessed goods (worth ~$10/tonne) versus processed goods (worth ~$100/tonne).
And when I question the moral worth of this status quo, the answer: “Surely you don’t want to cut International Aid spending!” **horror**
“Look how tiny the tariffs are on the vast majority of trade with X” (let’s not question whether that’s because we’ve stunted their higher value industries).
I’d say that this is not a problem of capitalism as a system, it is a problem of corporatism and mercantilism. And if you’re looking at this fragile edifice of capitalistic hubris – wondering whether there isn’t a lot to be said for a society that isn’t so specialised that it stands in constant peril of catastrophe… Sure, but right now that alternative will provide an average life expectancy of 40 years rather than eighty, and a child mortality rate of 60% rather than 5%.
And if the real problem the world faces is the calamity of left-behind societies that can’t keep up with the pace of progress… then one takes a rather less benign view of a policy choice that offers them a tractor while preventing them from getting wealthy. These people don’t have a chance because we kept them in primary industry, with parents sending their kids to the fields because they were poor and you don’t need an education to pick coffee.
They will need an education to get a job in clothing manufacturer, and they could build a high-value maintenance support service industry, but… we’re too busy feeling smug sending them container loads of donated t-shirts we got bored of wearing.
Circling back to Social Democracy from my tangent on Aid; there are definitely nations that have a more corporatist tendency – to protect their national champions, and/or a mercantilist tendency to distort the balance of trade in their favour – even if it is dressed up as ‘consumer safety. Britain, in relative terms, exhibits neither of those as driving pathologies, having a rather more ideological attachment to ‘free trade’ as a boon in its own right.
Could we not find a kinder version of capitalism? Well that depends on how you define the terms: You might define them as a balance between capitalism and social democracy. I might define them as a balance between free-trade capitalism vs Christian-Democratic corporatism/mercantilism (typified by Dirigisme and Rhineland capitalism).
In my example, as long as social democracy is characterised as Dirigisme or Rhineland capitalism – seeking to protect the industrial champions that employ the workers – then a move further in the direction of social democracy is a move further down the tractors for coffee-beans model.
And the French and German models do themselves have inequities that affect their own population:
Dirigisme comes with a strong collectivism that allows the French police to seriously injure 4000 people over 18 months in the jilet-jaunes riots without political consequence for the government. In the two essential strands of enlightenment liberalism it is French liberalism that is centred on the state as the guarantor of you liberty, where English liberalism has the individual as its focus.
Rhineland capitalism also comes with a collectivism which means that even though Germany is rich per-capita that wealth is actually subsidising the competitiveness of German industry. The Hartz IV reforms (implemented early 21c to make the German economy more competitive after the ongoing costs of reunification seemed to carry on forever), essentially mean that while German per-capita wealth is very high, it isn’t really felt in the average German pay packet.
And while Anglo-Saxon capitalism comes with severe problems, it has resulted in a highly adaptable society that can as a whole continue to match the relentless pace of progress – for all that it comes at a cost to those individuals who can’t keep up. It also has the benefit of being a little more honest in its intentions towards developing nations, in being less interested in protecting national champions.
I’m happy to say that the best path is usually found in avoiding extremes, but I’d want to be quite certain of how we’re defining this sensible ‘moderation’ of capitalism to which we should move to.