Several years ago, Andrew Glyn sent me a copy of his new book, Capitalism Unleashed, which I promised to review. But with one thing and another, I didn’t get to it, and then I received the news of his premature death, which set me back still further. I promised myself that I would do the review as a tribute to Andrew’s memory, and now, I’ve finally managed to do it.
Of course the environment now is radically different to the one in which the book was written, and that means the review must be to some extent informed by the wisdom of hindsight. In the introduction, Andrew notes as the first of the big open questions thrown up by the unleashing of capitalism
Will the ever more complex financial system implode in a major financial crisis and bring prolonged recession
We all know the answer now.
But while this possibility is certainly present in the thinking that informs the book, it is rarely brought to the foreground of our attention. The primary focus is on the way in which global financial capital has broken the bounds of national regulation, and severely weakened both the trade union movement and the viability of socialist and social democratic ideas.
The book is a clear-eyed look, from a socialist perspective, at financial capitalism in its zenith. It covers the policy program of privatisation and deregulation, the explosive growth of the financial sector, and of the global economy more generally, the retreat of organised labour and the stagnation in wages and working conditions that accompanied this retreat, particularly in the US, and, finally the apparent achievement of macroeconomic stability, described by Ben Bernanke as the Great Moderation.
The book does a good job of pointing out the weaknesses of the dominant ideology – the failed promises of privatisation, the LTCM fiasco, derivatives as ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’, the growth in poverty and inequality and so on. But the overwhelming emphasis is on the strength of financial capitalism and on the massive obstacles facing any attempt even to mitigate its harshest features. Some countervailing tendencies are noted (for example, continued public support for egalitarian policies, and the relative resilience of the welfare state) but the overall trend is clear.
In the wake of the global financial crisis, it is certainly worth reading for those of us (myself included) who are arguing that the crisis provides a new opening for social democratic politics. Even with its prestige and ideological hegemony gravely weakened, and its size and profitability substantially reduced, the global financial sector is an immensely powerful force. So far at least, it has been successful in resisting any permanent controls that would fundamentally reduce its freedom or prevent another crisis like the present one.
Andrew Glyn was the ideal of an intellectual: thoughtful, lucid and committed to social justice. All these qualities shine through in this, his last book.