Book review: It’s all about us

A review of "Greed is dead: Politics after individualism" by Paul Collier and John Kay

birds on telephone wire
Editor's note:

This review was originally published in the July 2020 issue of Literary Review.

‘The mistake we the establishment made internationally was in the 1990s and 2000s when it was all going well – when we thought we’d really sorted out a marvellous new world.’ So Kenneth Clarke observed in a ‘Lunch with the FT’ interview in January 2020, in that ancient time before the pandemic. He went on, ‘We didn’t, I think, know quite what to do about the at least 50 percent of the population for whom this meant their living standards didn’t rise, jobs they’d been proud of were given up for ones [that are] a way of earning a living, paying the bills … In practical day-to-day terms, we’ve made a bit of a cock-up of it.’

This was quintessential Clarke, earthy, self-deprecating and wise (he deserved the accompanying bottle of Château Haut Pezat for that last line alone). He is right. For decades, living standards grew painfully slowly for many, if not most, of our fellow citizens. Meanwhile, those at the top flourished. The tectonic plates of our societies slowly pulled apart. Then the earthquakes came: Trump, populism, Brexit. Clarke’s ‘bit of a cock-up’ amounts to nothing less than a wholesale failure by the governing and intellectual elite to recognise and address the fractures in our political economy before it was too late.

Like Clarke, I count myself among the guilty. We embraced the liberalisation of the markets of the world and of the cultures of our societies. We stood for immigration, cosmopolitanism and meritocracy. We worried about inequality, but not enough. We thought that some straightforward redistribution would probably suffice. If pressed, we resorted to the language of ‘human capital’ along with the need for ‘upskilling’ and ‘lifelong learning’.

The ‘marvellous new world’ was one in which people like Clarke could argue with people like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown about fiddly, technocratic policy details, such as tax credits or NHS reform. Once Thatcher and Reagan were gone and the Berlin Wall had fallen, the lines between the major parties blurred as the political terrain narrowed. We were all liberal centrists then.

Paul Collier and John Kay, two of the most thoughtful economists writing today, argue that our problem runs deeper than hubris and complacency. The cause of our current malaise is, as they see it, a ‘half-century of extreme individualism’ – a long and damaging departure from the communitarian norms that ought to shape human societies.

It is unclear how far they think the disease of individualism has spread. They write that ‘we live in societies saturated in selfishness’, which indicates a widespread infection. But in general they suggest that ‘elite individualism’ is the main problem. Their book is in fact enlivened by many inspiring examples of communities taking action and providing practical and emotional help to thousands of needy families, from the formation of Teach for America to the establishment of London’s Little Village, run by a 400-strong team of volunteers. These are held up as examples of how ‘natural empathy among families has inspired constructive activism’.

The idea that humans are naturally pro-social and that collaboration has helped us to flourish is not a novel one, of course. It is a staple of evolutionary studies. It is also one of the best arguments for free markets that facilitate exchange and cooperation. Collier and Kay distance themselves from ‘market fundamentalists’ who ‘claim that the freest possible markets are required in order to harness the ineradicable power of human greed for public benefit’ (it would be hard to find many such people, I’d wager). But they insist that markets themselves are good, in that they allow for ‘disciplined pluralism’. ‘If experiments fail – and most do’, they write, ‘the market economy provides rapid feedback. Failures are abandoned, successes imitated.’ We neither need nor want a National Bread Service. In fact, a striking absence in the book is any call for economic or corporate reform. Indeed, the authors are against changes to corporate law or any of the main features of the economy. Instead, they are after that most elusive of transformations: one in culture.

They brilliantly pierce the hypocrisy of ‘woke’ elites, whether in business, politics or Hollywood. ‘The state in which Hollywood is located has become the epicentre of disgrace,’ they write. ‘One of America’s wealthiest states, it has a major problem of homelessness, lamentable public schooling and very high rates of incarceration, mostly of minorities. California is the state of Proposition 13, the infamous law that has prevented the explosion in property prices from financing the state budget. But changing these things is not woke.’

This is sharp and entirely accurate. Where were the celebs backing California Senate Bill 50, which would have allowed for the building of more housing near transit hubs and was defeated for the third time in January 2020? Cultural issues drown out economic and political ones. A well-timed hashtag gets a more immediate – and more public – reward than months of lobbying a local government committee on housing, transportation or education. Few now are attracted to politics as Max Weber described it: ‘a strong and slow boring of hard boards’.

Collier and Kay also skewer the individualism that has led to politics becoming a form of performance, epitomised by the extraordinary rise of Donald Trump to the US presidency. As they point out, Trump is not the exception – he’s the rule. Politics has been warped by an ‘ugly stridency’ on all sides, in which intensity of feeling is ‘for many the measure of moral worth’.

Into this short book the authors cram their views on a kaleidoscopic range of topics, including, among others, the curious childlessness of the leaders of many European countries, the poor performance of the Labour Party in the 2019 general election, Germany’s move away from nuclear power, the decline of defined-benefit pension schemes, prenatal stress and the Newport bypass.

One can imagine the two of them at a bar or in a coffee shop (or now, of course, on a Zoom call) saying, ‘and another thing…’ And-another-thingism is a common enough affliction among nonfiction writers. From lesser thinkers it can be tiresome. But Collier and Kay are interesting on almost every subject they alight upon. They digress, but delightfully.

The big problem they face, and never solve, is the one faced by all communitarian thinkers. They know what they are against – the ‘self-righteous narcissism of expressive individualism’ – but are hazy on what they are for, beyond the obvious. Decentralisation of political power would indeed be good. But what else?

Decentralisation of political power would indeed be good. But what else?

They urge upon us ‘mutual efforts to be morally purposive’ and ‘accepting the agency of being morally load-bearing’. As proud communitarians, they recognise that ‘there are many levels of mutuality, such as families and firms, churches and localities, and nations’. But who seriously disputes this?

It is frustratingly difficult to get communitarians to be precise about the real-world implications of their views. Collier and Kay write, for example, about how communities must govern their members: ‘The community is in control of its rules, which are not imposed by outsiders, or invented by a caste of lawyers based on imagined universalist norms which are deduced independently of the practices of the community in which they live.’ What does this mean? Is sharia law okay in Bethnal Green? Or in some cases should a ‘caste of lawyers’ impose ‘imagined universalist norms’, like gender equality? It is not clear.

Communitarianism has all the good, warm words on its side. But as an applied philosophy, it always comes up empty-handed. The authors refer to Kenneth Minogue’s famous depiction of liberals as St George, refusing to retire after slaying the big dragons – religious intolerance, monarchical despotism, slavery – and instead seeking smaller and smaller dragons to slay: inequality, discrimination against disabled people, intolerance of homosexuality. There is some truth to this critique. Liberals have sometimes struggled to quit while they are ahead. In recent years, many liberals have also forgotten the values of pluralism. But liberal democracy faces serious threats once again, in particular from nationalistic populists. It is not just Trump, but also Bolsonaro, Erdoğan, Putin, Duterte and Modi. There are some bigger dragons to fight again.