We all know the story by now, it goes like this: The world was good, back then, in the 1950s and 1960s. We had a nation state that cared for us, one that was actually capable of doing things: it built roads, provided decent schools and education, and, most importantly, it lessened poverty and social inequality. Why couldn’t it just stay that way forever? Why on earth did Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan have to come and clatter around our golden age of welfare paradise? Because so they did, around 1980, when Milton broadcast his famous, free-market advocating TV series Free to Choose
, when Ronald gave speeches about choice and opportunity and when Maggie started her war on unions and state-owned businesses. Why couldn’t they just leave us alone?
As you may have noticed, I am slightly sceptical about that story. To me, it seems too simple, too conservative, and too centered on the development in the West, especially the US. This is not to say that it is utterly wrong, but rather that it is only a tiny shred of a much bigger story that is much more complicated and harder to grasp in all of it’s facets. I will hopefully explore this in a longer essay in the near future. However, what concerns me here is a new and very impressive piece by David Simon
in The Observer
. David Simon is the creator of The Wire
, the best TV series of all times (even better, one might claim, than Friedman’s Free to Choose
). As you know if you’ve watched it, it is about the decay of an American city, the great gap that divides American society, and the drug trade as a war on America’s underclass. If you haven’t watched it, just do it. Now. Nothing else matters. You can come back to this text once you’ve finished all of the incredibly good five seasons and 60 episodes of the show.
Hi there, welcome back again. So in his speech, delivered at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Simon tells essentially the same story I told two paragraphs above, only with less irony – that is, with the severe seriousness this story really needs to be told with. Simon reminds us, or rather: reminds me, in all of his work, that there is indeed something broken in Western societies. There are way too many people who are being left behind, and it is not their fault. In the fourth and fifth seasons of The Wire (spoiler alert!), we witness the failure of a group of promising young boys to escape the hell that is their home, their neighbourhood, their city. Simon shows us the sheer impossibility of the “pursuit of happiness” for these boys who don’t stand a chance against their drug-addicted parents, the drug gangs and drug lords, and the white middle class that wouldn’t let them in. All of the odds are stacked against them and they don’t get to win, unless they are incredibly lucky. Whatever free-market ideology might tell you, this is not about effort, merit, or performance, it is about the circumstances and structures these people are born into and in which they have to live.
Simon is certainly not a Marxist. Rather, he advocates what in continental Europe is still perceived as a reasonable compromise between market and state:
I’m utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s over. But the idea that it’s not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that’s astonishing to me.
He also makes some points that I regularly make myself
Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox if you’re trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn’t want to go forward at this point without it. But it’s not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.
Exactly: Capitalism is a tool, not a “metaphor for society as a whole” (Daniel Rodgers). It’s a tool that is formidable to achieve some things, like allocating resources and goods, but quite disastrous when it comes to others – say, having an economy without huge periodic crises. It is good that Simon (and others, of course) reminds us of these basic distinctions. And it is even better that he reminds us of the actual consequences of the transformation of the West (and the world) for people at the bottom of our societies. We must not forget these consequences, and we must not forget these people.
However, Simon’s solution for these problems still strikes me as too easy, too simplistic, and too conservative. We can’t change anything, he states,
Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.
Is this really it? Just a simple throwback to Keynesian-style New Deal policies, and we will defeat the excesses and short-comings of capitalism? Isn’t there more that has changed during the past 70 years than only policy? Is it really just Milton’s, Ronald’s, and Margaret’s fault that we’ve got here? I have thought quite a lot (though certainly not enough) about this topic, and I tend to conclude that it is neither possible nor even desirable to just go back to where we were. Why? I’ll leave that to another post.
Image: David Simon, 2010, CC-by-SA-4.0, Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation via Wikimedia Commons