Yes, Vince Cable is an anti-capitalist…
...but of the narrow-minded, misanthropic, austerity-loving variety, not the future-oriented Marxist kind.
Just when you thought the cult of Vince Cable couldn’t get any stranger, it does. Last week, after Cable, the Lib-Con coalition’s business secretary, gave a speech to the Liberal Democrat conference, serious commentators sagely debated whether or not he is a Marxist. This follows the General Election campaigning in May this year, during which Cable was widely lauded as a hero.
The latest debate was prompted by a few choice remarks in Cable’s speech. He attacked bankers as ‘spivs and gamblers’ and argued that ‘capitalism takes no prisoners and kills competition’. This led the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, Richard Lambert, jokingly to invite Cable to outline his alternative to capitalism at a CBI conference. Cable responded by saying that his comments should not be seen as ‘an outburst of Marxism’.
There followed a media frenzy in which the vast majority of pundits were eager to confirm that Cable was no Marxist. The Economist noted that the comments were taken out of context. Nick Robinson of the BBC made it official with his declaration: ‘Vince is not a Marxist.’ Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party berated Cable for not having read Karl Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy, and pointed out that although Cable had rejected unconstrained capitalism he was in coalition with unreconstructed Thatcherites.
I am happy to confirm that Cable is indeed not a Marxist. He has no desire to abolish capitalism, a society based on production for profit, and replace it with a communist society organised to meet people’s needs. Indeed, despite his rhetoric, he is a staunch supporter of the market system.
But beyond the banal observation that Cable is no red lie some genuinely interesting and important developments. First, a different form of anti-capitalism, what could be called romantic anti-capitalism, has come to the fore in contemporary discussion, and Cable expresses some of its prejudices and views. And second, despite the lack of any existential threat to the market system, there is a significant debate underway about the future of capitalism.
To understand romantic anti-capitalism it is useful to counterpose it to traditional Marxism. For Marx, the goal was to progress from a market economy to a better form of society. Although leftists disputed what constituted socialism, and how it could be achieved, the aim was always pretty much the same: to advance from capitalism to a more prosperous society.
In contrast, the goal of romantic anti-capitalism is to restrain and regulate the market economy. Rather than criticise capitalism for providing insufficient prosperity, the romantic anti-capitalists argue that it provides too much growth. In their view it is so dynamic that it needs to be constrained. This is romantic in the sense that it longs for a stable, unconflicted economy in which everyone is content with what they already have rather than desiring more.
As Sean Collins has previously argued on spiked, this outlook is anti-development, anti-consumption and misanthropic. It is against the development of the Third World, for example, as it believes this will denude the Earth of resources and destroy the planet. It is anti-consumption in that it sees imposing austerity on the mass of the population as desirable. And it is misanthropic because it views the impact of people on the planet as being one-sidely destructive.
It is an outlook I have called ‘growth scepticism’ because it upholds the goal of economic growth in principle while subjecting it to numerous caveats in practice. It argues that growth must be subject to strict limits: environmental, social and moral. If human beings do not respect these constraints, the growth sceptics argue, then disaster will ensue.
Vince Cable’s old-fashioned Liberal Democrat views easily morph into the growth-sceptic outlook. His is the view of the small businessman who hates big business for undercutting him but who detests the political left and the ‘mob’ that it represents even more. From this perspective, he demands restraints on large companies and banks – which is the limited sense in which he is ‘anti-capitalist’ – while eagerly playing the role of a vanguard in imposing austerity.
So The Economist was right to point out that Cable was quoted out of context. If the key passages in his speech are examined in full, his outlook of middle class anti-capitalism – supporting the market system but demanding restraint – becomes more apparent:
‘Capitalism takes no prisoners and kills competition where it can, as Adam Smith explained over 200 years ago. I want to protect consumers and keep prices down and provide a level playing field for small business, so we must be vigilant right across the economy – whether in the old industries of economies textbooks or the newer privatised utilities and cosy magic circles in auditing, law or investment banking. Competition is central to my pro-market, pro-business, agenda.’
He then went on to argue that: ‘On banks, I make no apology for attacking spivs and gamblers who did more harm to the British economy than Bob Crow could achieve in his wildest Trotskyite fantasies, while paying themselves outrageous bonuses underwritten by the taxpayer. I have managed to infuriate the bank bosses; acquire a fatwa from the revolutionary guards of the trades union movement; frighten the Daily Telegraph with a progressive graduate payment; and upset very rich people who are trying to dodge British taxes. I must be doing something right.’
Cable seems blithely unaware that the great battle between capitalism and socialism is no more. The idea that There Is No Alternative to the market is almost universally accepted. But his desperate desire to curb the volatility of the market while imposing austerity fits in well with the prevailing preoccupations of today’s elite.
Cable is far from alone in this outlook. Although there is no imminent threat to the existence of the market system, there is a big debate about the future of capitalism. From the pages of the Financial Times to the offices of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, there is a big discussion about what capitalism should look like. It is also discussed in popular books such as Anatole Kaletsky’s Capitalism 4.0 and Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. There is even a movement among influential economists to establish a ‘new economics’ to reflect a more restrained form of capitalism.
In popular debate, this is often reflected in the discussion of ‘greedy bankers’, in which caricatured investment bankers are unfavourably compared to mainstream business. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, just released in America and out soon in Britain, is just one example of this trend. By constructing a caricatured image of ‘greed’, it implicitly makes a popular case for restraint and curbs on consumption.
Vince Cable is only one peculiar example of perhaps the most peculiar trend of these times: the emergence of a new, misanthropic form of anti-capitalism. Rather than attempting to replace the market economy with something better, his goal, and the goal of many others, is to promote a restrained form of capitalism. But this new form of capitalism is even worse than the original: the proponents of the ‘new economics’ are all too eager to curb growth and development while imposing austerity on the mass of the population.