23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, (Chang 2011) is written by Korean economist, Ha-Joon Chang, who claims not to be an enemy of capitalism only the particular form of free-market hyper-capitalism that developed in the Anglo-American world since 1979. For a man who claims to be a supporter of capitalism he does a damn fine job of exposing the systemic weaknesses and logical inconsistencies that underpin the ideology.
The book is aimed at an educated general reader, rather than at fellow economists or financial experts and is admirably accessible and readable. The structure takes the form of 23 essays that each addresses a different “thing”. As a result you could argue that the book lacks any form of narrative drive and at times the referencing back and forth to different “things” (i.e. essays) is sometimes irritatingly confusing but these would be carping criticisms of an important book that outlines a convincing, coherent and pretty devastating critique of our post-Thatcher financial system.
While reading the book I couldn’t help thinking of a song by my old mucker the actor and singer-sonwriter, Dudley Sutton. He performed the song, It’s All Lies, on his visit to my NCCR radio show, Agitpop. It’s actually a song about the media and starts off like this:
I READ IT IN THE PAPERS
SO I KNOW IT MUST BE TRUE
I SAW IT ON THE TELEVISION TOO
I HEARD IT ON THE RADIO
BROADCAST NORTH AND SOUTH
THEN IT CAME TO ME DIRECT
BY WORD OF MOUTH –
IT’S ALL LIES, IT’S ALL LIES,
THAT THEY TALK A LOT OF BOLLOCKS
OUGHT TO COME AS NO SURPRISE
IT’S ALL LIES, ALL COMPROMISE
A LOAD OF BULL DESIGNED TO PULL
THE WOOL OVER YOUR EYES
[You can hear the rest of it by clicking here.]
I kept thinking of this while reading 23 Things because Chang does such a brilliant job of undermining all the justifications for hyper-capitalism that have been churned out for the last 30 years, that you realise after just a few pages how systematically and thoroughly we have been misinformed.
Thus the book made me perhaps more angry with the so-called free press, rather than the super-rich, because one expects the capitalist class to defends it own interests, but the press in a genuinely democratic society surely has a duty to challenge prevailing orthodoxies and explore alternative points of view – both of which the mainstream press has so spectacularly failed to do since ’79.
Reading this book reminded me of going to see Michael Moore’s live show at The Roundhouse back in November 2002. Moore pointed out that the Bush family knew Osama Bin Laden’s family very well and had even visited the Bush family range in Texas. Indeed, he suggested that President Bush Snr had been involved in getting 13 members of the Bin Laden family out of the USA 8 days after 9/11 while ordinary commercial flights were still grounded. Now, I have no idea what this information means or even implies but what astounded me was that I had to find out about it from Michael Moore; that less than 2 years after the 9/11 tragedy nowhere in the British press had I heard anything about this Bush/Bin Laden connection. Did the UK press not think it in the least bit interesting that Osama Bin Laden’s family are close to the family of two Presidents of the USA!? It’s enough to make you paranoid….
23 Things, did a similar job for me as page after page dismantled the arguments and rhetoric of free-market capitalism and most importantly credibly challenged the evidential claims for the financial successes of The City in terms of growth and material wealth. I have to ask myself why had I not heard these arguments put forward in the public discourse since 1979?
Because when you put this book together with the Wilkinson & Pickets’s, The Spirit Level (Wilkinson & Pickett 2010) and Robert Skidelsky’s expose of the academic discipline of economics that is, Keynes: The Return Of The Master (Skidelsky 2010), it confirms just how theoretically shaky the whole edifice of free-market hyper-capitalism was and still is.
What is truly amazing though is that throughout this last 20 years, in conversations in pubs and super-market queues, most ordinary people I know have been questioning the logic of this debt and growth driven ideology; “How can house prices keep going up like this? It doesn’t make sense.” was the start of many a conversation, as was “How can it be sensible for us all to have so much debt? It just doesn’t make sense.” Or “How can you justify the salaries of these fat cats?”
So what is truly amazing about the financial crash of 2008 is that if ordinary non-experts were asking these common-sense questions about the housing boom, level of debt and massive executive salaries, why weren’t the government, the economists and the so-called experts in The City? I suppose it would be paranoid and conspiricist to suggest that they didn’t ask those questions because it wasn’t in their interests to do so?
However, for me, the saddest thing of all is the glut of, often very good, books that have appeared post-2008, that so elegantly and forcibly expose the incoherence at the heart of the late 20th Century form of laissez faire capitalism. What’s sad about them is that they were written after the fact; now it’s all too easy for interested democratic citizens to get hold of accessible, informed, expert criticism of capitalism, but for the last 30 years those of us who have maintained our scepticism about the instability inherent in such an ideology of greed ,have often been pilloried as ill-informed, old-fashioned and naïve. It appears now that we were right to be sceptical and perhaps if a few people of power (especially Tony Blair & Gordon Brown) had maintained the traditional scepticism the left feels for capitalist ideology then ordinary British tax payers might not have had to pay so harshly for the excesses of the wealthy.
Anyway, 23 Things, is a great tool for anyone seeking to critique capitalist ideology and should I think be compulsory reading for all those who still seek to defend an ideology that has through the exercise of it’s own internal logic brought itself to the brink of universal system failure twice in less than a hundred years. Highly recommended.
Chang, H., 2011. 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Bloomsbury Press.
Skidelsky, R., 2010. Keynes: The Return of the Master, Penguin.
Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K., 2010. The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Penguin.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society