6 February 2007

Warning the Frog

We are living in interesting times. Far from the fall of the Berlin Wall marking the end of history it has opened up all sorts of possibilities and freed our minds from the hegemony of capitalist ideology. The arena of debate has been released from the straightjacket of the false dichotomy between capitalism and communism. This is a timely turn of events, because we will need all our powers of creative thinking to solve the significant and urgent problems that we face as human beings sharing this beautiful planet.

Although problems such as climate change and global poverty are now figuring large in the public debate the penny has yet to drop that these are but two consequences of a wider problem, caused by the way our economy is organised, caused by capitalism. Many concerned citizens make commendable efforts with individual problems, when their time would be more efficiently spent addressing the source of those problems. This was my conclusion when I published a book during 2006. Much of the content of this blog is extracted from that book. If you would like to have it all in one handy volume you can buy it from me (details here) or my publisher (details here).

The book is called Market, Schmarket! But my opposition to the market is not total. I argue for a change in the rules governing what is a social institution like any other. And my opposition to capitalism does not make me a communist. There is no longer any need to characterise those who question the efficiency and ubiquity of markets as communist fellow-travellers. We have the liberty to explore an infinite range of different ways of deciding how our resources should be shared, how goods and services should be manufactured and distributed. Rather than ensuring the final victory of capitalism, in fact the ending of communist domination of Eastern Europe and its retreat in most other parts of the world has opened up the space for debating these different approaches to economics.

This is an urgent task for, let us be frank, the system we have is not a very good one. Any system that allows deaths from over-consumption in some countries and from under-consumption in others can hardly claim that it achieves efficient distribution. An economic system whose twin objectives are profits and expansion can no more claim to meet our most fundamental human needs for security and well-being.I have frequently been told that if I oppose capitalism I must be a communist. This sort of comment betrays a sad lack of imagination on the part of my interlocutor. My response is that I refuse to believe that a species that has produced the likes of Shakespeare and Gandhi can really not achieve something more exalted in terms of an economic system than capitalism. This is the challenge for us all, not least because if we fail to rise to it the planet on which we all depend will begin to fail to support us. It is a challenge which I make some effort to contribute towards in this book.

An article in the Economist used the metaphor of the frog in the experimental vat in a discussion of the problem of debt. The point about the metaphor is that, because the heat is turned up so slowly, the frog does not realize it is being slowly boiled alive. This sounds to me like the folk myth of the dog in the microwave, since I cannot believe anybody would be allowed to conduct the experiment required to test the idea, but as a metaphor for how our economic system is cooking us all without our really noticing it cannot be bettered. So the message of this blog is: ‘Wake up! Jump out of the vat!’.


  1. yes if you are not supporting capitalism, then you're a communist..what a pity people can't get out of that view..it is like imagination is in jail, while we are free to choose pepsi or coke, we're not free to think the world..

  2. I’m not an economist. Maybe it shows.
    But it seems to me that we cannot describe our present system as Capitalist any more than we can talk about a free market, which we have never had. Capitalism is about acquiring wealth [capital], things that have a monetary value. But look hard and our economy is underpinned by Debt, exactly the opposite, and it is causing misery to many of us.
    It is not so much Globalisation that worries me, more the practices that are currently driving it. Divide and rule. The haves [consumers] and have-nots [workers]. Both are being exploited by the Multi-Nationals in pursuit of economic growth for its own sake. There must come a time when an economy matures and stabilises, if we let it, but we [they] are locked into an outdated system that does not address the new parameters we are facing.
    I am tired of the entrenched left/right, capitalist/communist positions, we need some original thinking to meet the demands our new situation.

  3. Well, capitalism is about capitalists aquiring capital... so personal debt fits perfectly with that because it ties us into their framework.

    I think capitalism is pretty mature already - over ripe might be a better term - but whilst we may be experiencing a particular stage, dominated by multinationals and financial capital I don't see any reason to think our economic system is no longer capitalist

    Also: The thing is all workers are also consumers so I'm not sure exactly how useful turning the two into distinct categories really is.

  4. the only way out is to abdide by a different set of Laws ... .... http://info.bahai.org/article-1-8-3-2.html .... ... ... The Bahá'í Faith teaches that a balance must be struck between the latitudes of individual freedom and the promotion of the collective good. .... ... As `Abdu'l-Bahá states, "the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world's multitudes should become a source of social good." ... ... ...

  5. Jim Jay
    However you define the economic system we have two things are for sure - it ain't sustainable and it ain't equitable.
    These should be the Twin Towers of tomorrow.