Fired Up about Capitalism. Tom Malleson.

Malleson, Tom. Fired Up about Capitalism. Between the Lines, Toronto, 2016. NF;7/22.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand

– W B Yeats

Tom Malleson is the brilliant son of dear friends of ours, both of his parents retired physicians. Now in his 30s Tom is a social science academic in Ontario and it’s no surprise that his political philosophy follows and builds on that of both of his parents who are still progressively socialist. This book makes the argument against “neoliberalism” cogently and convincingly enough to hold the interest of people with a range of political views. I finished it strengthened in my conviction that if there is ever again to be strong widely-supported government in Western democracies there will have to be enormous compromise which means almost unimaginable hard work.

Tom calls current neoliberalism “U.S.-style unregulated winner-take-all capitalism (which) leads to billionaires and homeless people…” and says that “Soviet-style top-down authoritarian planning (which) features gulags and group-think” is no viable alternative. He says “all the major institutions” need to “work on the principle of democratic equality.” What would that look like?

Predictably Tom says markets must be regulated and “embedded in social life” and the idea that There is No Alternative (TINA) to capitalism (because social democracy with its heavy welfare state produces less freedom, less prosperity, and more entitlement-seekers) just isn’t true. There is he says a fundamental antagonism in unregulated business between employer and employees regarding wages and effort. If government is accountable and representative, why shouldn’t businesses be as well? If unions of employees participated directly in corporate decision-making and agreed to reduce the income of the highest earners in order to increase that of the lowest we would have a more equitable and reasonable society.

We are told how “mainstream political common sense shift(ed) so dramatically to the right” over the past hundred years. Following the Great Depression, it appeared that the capitalism of the 1920s would never again be credible. The New Deal in the US and Keynesian economics began an era of unprecedented economic sunshine in Western economies, through the 1960s. But with the late 1970s problems arose. Profits diminished, and the tide seemed to turn to the right with the election of Reagan, Thatcher and George Bush. Right-wing think tanks became more vocal and influential. The result was continuing increase in productivity but flattening of workers’ compensation, inflation, and a widening gap between haves and have-nots. It became common wisdom that the alternatives to capitalism (communism and social democracy) would always fail and that “TINA” to neoliberalism.

It’s interesting to me having just finished Mearsheimer’s The Great Delusion to hear Tom Malleson’s story of public acceptance of “unregulated, winner-take-all casino capitalism” and mainstream political common sense shifting “dramatically to the right”. Mearsheimer – although he’s talking about international relations not so much political philosophy generally – defines his preferred modus vivendi liberalism as a live and let live philosophy directed towards other countries but also among people within nations. And then Mearsheimer tells us that “in practice, progressive liberalism has triumphed” (italics mine) with its inalienable-rights-oriented approach to politics over modus vivendi liberalism. If it has why would Dr. Malleson be all Fired Up?

Well, each of these two smart well-informed strongly polarized and more or less opposed political philosophy authors is telling us that the other side is overwhelmingly in charge. My question is not how either “side” got to be the “winner” but how it can be that they are both credible representing their views as those of politically-embattled losers? Of course arguing that impending disaster is the consequence of your opponent’s entitled incompetence will tend to pull a lot of scared and confused people. If as an expert you believe that “mainstream political common sense” needs to shift a bit your way you may feel you’d better broadcast an overkill argument.

Discussing solutions to his understanding of problems in capitalist society, Tom Malleson refers to Scandinavian countries as examples of how socialism can be successful and sustainable. Having spent a bit of time in Scandinavian countries and a lot of time in the United States, I wonder whether there may be some concerns over the validity of that idea. Typical Scandinavian people are quiet, practical, strongly and consistently nationalistic, and I would say prepared to make sacrifices for society’s common good. Americans appear to me to be much less unanimous in their understanding of the good life and how to pull together to solve the many problems they face. We have between the US and Scandinavia two completely different types of people in other words. So much so that to point to Norway and Sweden as potential models for the United States feels to me like suggesting people in West Africa should work towards organizing themselves to be more like the state of Oregon. Challenging.

How do so many brilliant informed experts seem to miss the unavoidable importance of both ideas in the world’s famous opposed dichotomies? Confidentiality and access to information in healthcare for one example. Safety versus freedom for another. And the right and left: primacy of the individual versus primacy of the group. The real world doesn’t allow, doesn’t admit complete achievement of either side of these opposed dichotomies at the necessary expense of the other. When things are difficult, the majority of people are unhappy, long-standing systems and solutions clearly aren’t working, and human nature is denying responsibility, playing the victim and looking for someone to blame, shouldn’t it be obvious to high officials and most-respected experts that both sides of these dichotomies matter critically? That it would be fatal but also impossible to finally do away with either one and that the quiet boring terribly difficult work of compromise is the only way forward?

I think most people agree with both the political left and right that things are not going well for Western liberalism these days. There is a sense of impending misfortune and maybe calamity in the wild polarity and mistrust in the United States, disorder after Brexit in the UK, and unsettling immigration and economic woes, even war, in Europe. Yeats’s dark Second Coming seems to threaten an increasingly troubled world. I don’t find much practical hope on the horizon. I wish fine intellects like Tom Malleson’s could help us toward collaboration and compromise.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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