John surveys the latest wave of books attacking capitalism.
There has been a recent flood of these. Naomi Klein’s No Logo and Noreena Hertz’s The Silent Takeover have similar themes – the subversion of our lives by big business. Klein emphasises the all pervasive role of brands, while Hertz prefers to stress the direct influence of business on government. But the general tenor is similar. Both are well written and poorly argued. Unless you take the view it is wrong for business to have any influence at all on society and politics, you will find the evidence of controlling influence is astonishingly thin: if there is no more serious threat to free speech than GE-owned NBC’s unwillingness to accept advertising featuring a pig in support of buy-nothing day, we don’t have much to worry about. And both Klein and Hertz end up concluding that, as consumers, we have a good deal of control over what business does, which is what most advocates of free market economies thought all the time.
George Monbiot is more of an investigative journalist, and in The Captive State he is much better at identifying those business influences on politics that gives genuine cause for concern. And even if anti-capitalists don’t necessarily have the best tunes, they often play them well. Even with the support of a ghost writer, Jack Welch’s autobiography wins no prizes for literary excellence, and Who Moved my Cheese? is beyond comment or parody. Monbiot knows how to write.
But not all left writing is good. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire confirms that the Marxist gift for leaden prose survives even if the states that once produced so much of it have not. And few of the contributions to Monbiot’s edited volume Anti-capitalism give any pleasure in the reading, either for style or content. These essays illustrate, even more clearly than the others, the incoherence of the post-socialist left. What they are against is obvious enough, but what are they for? What should people persuaded by their arguments do?
Demonstrate, seems to be the answer. It appears from Anti-capitalism that protest is not a means to an end, it is the end. There are enough real failures of capitalism around – from the fiasco of the ‘new economy’ to the collapse of Enron – to deserve serious analysis. More and better work is needed to provide it.