Utopians against capitalism – Colin Crouch

In these crisis times there is a premium on utopian thinking—but also practical proposals and the power resources to make change real.

‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing’—Oscar Wilde (phloxii/shutterstock.com)

Seven Ethics Against Capitalism: Towards a Planetary Commons, Oli Mould, Polity Press, 2021

Post Growth: Life After Capitalism, Tim Jackson, Polity, 2021

The Case for a Four Day Week, Anna Coote, Aidan Harper and Alfie Stirling, Polity, 2020

If this is not a time ripe for writing about utopias, when would be? After the financial crash of 2008, the greatest growth in the democratic world of xenophobic extremism since Nazism and fascism, and the still current pandemic, many certainties of preceding decades have been blown away, leaving a vacuum utopian writing properly fills. Now comes the time to imagine futures which are not just better but altogether different.

Utopia may never fully exist in reality—it derives its meaning ambiguously from the ancient Greek words for ‘no place’ and ‘good place’—but parts of its dream can be so attractive that we strive to make reality bend to them. And, provided some power can be wielded, a few will actually be achieved.

Of the three books under review, Oli Mould’s is the most unrealistic. The plea for a four-day week by Anna Coote, Aidan Harper and Alfie Stirling on behalf of the New Economics Foundation is at the other extreme, comprising practical policy proposals rendered ‘utopian’ only because of the severe pressures on working conditions under neoliberalism. Tim Jackson’s Aristotelian plea for a via media comes, appropriately, in between.


While the energy of some new forces on today’s left is devoted to both LGBT+ rights and inadequate social benefits, the former appears to touch their deepest sensibilities. To anyone who has found this puzzling, Mould’s book helps enlighten.

In his chapter on minoritarianism, he upbraids (though a man) heterosexual feminists for failing to understand that a flexible, changing sexuality is morally superior to a fixed one. This is because fixity of all kinds is a fundamental characteristic of white, male, nationalistic, imperialistic, racist, neoliberal capitalism—and you really do not want to be part of that package. Minority and in particular changing sexual orientations are therefore fundamental to the rejection of capitalism.

Yet if this be so, Mould never stops to ponder why the rights of members of minority communities, whether defined by gender or sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability, have probably never stood higher than in the advanced world of today. This is not because of something essentially benign about neoliberals—it is just that they do not care about such things.

Contrary to Mould’s core assumptions, capitalism is a highly flexible form of economic and social order. That is why it has survived and adapted. State socialism behaved like a solid, rigid lump, such that once the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, made clear that Russian tanks were no longer available to shore it up, the entire edifice collapsed within a couple of years. Capitalism more closely resembles a liquid, as Zygmunt Bauman perceived in his last series of books on the subject, especially Liquid Modernity.

Under apartheid, businesses enjoyed the low wages and terrible working conditions this implied for blacks. But when apartheid ended, they were eager to find new sources of managerial talent within the black population and new middle-class black consumers. Many excellent studies have shown how the traditional ‘breadwinner’ family suited capitalism’s purposes, with women at home sustaining the social reproduction it needed but could not or would not provide. As women gradually rejected that role, capitalism was however keen to take advantage of their work skills and new consumption opportunities.

When the capitalist chameleon needed support to defend itself against socialism, its political representatives happily formed alliances with Christian democrats and espoused various forms of mainly Catholic morality. When, at a much earlier point, they were struggling against the hierarchical and anti-individualistic social order of traditional European monarchy and papacy, they were eager to ride on the back of secular liberalism and its opposition to that church and its values.

Today capitalists exploit the amoral possibilities of post-Christianity. This enables them simultaneously to be ruthless towards, even heedless of, the fate of planet Earth, while shrugging their shoulders at sexual diversity. Most recently, facing the new ethics of environmentalism which threatens to overwhelm their cynicism, the chameleon is busy exploring the advantages of some new (greener) colour changes. These qualities make capitalism a slippery beast to define and pin down but also a reformable one—provided power relations in society can enforce this.

Seven ethics

Mould sets down seven ethics which, together, can be used to attack the beast: mutualism, transmaterialism, minoritarianism, decodification, slowness, failure and love. If his weakest claim is that minoritarianism strikes at neoliberalism’s roots, other chapters are stronger. Those on the relevance of slowness, acceptance of failure and love contain beautiful passages. Others are more mixed.

For example, ‘decodification’ enables a moral attack on the disfiguring use of targets that has been such a feature of the neoliberal period, yet to suggest, as Mould agrees with Marcus Doel, that the use of numbers ‘is a violent act on the world’ is unsustainable. On ‘transmaterialism’, one can fully support the ‘right to repair’ movement’s challenge to the wastefulness of phased obsolescence while not endorsing Mould’s approval of the claim by Gary Francione that veganism needs to go ‘beyond a form of consumption to be a rejection of racism, sexism, heterosexism and other forms of discrimination’.

Back in the minoritarianism chapter, Mould cites approvingly the insistence by Judith Butler that ‘to categorize the agency of all women together in the feminist movement is to discontinue the act of becoming, which, as we now know, can lead to appropriation by the majority’. For Mould, majorities are always bad.

There are so many instances of this kind that I became suspicious that the book was a far-right send up, a reductio ad absurdum of various alternative writers. But the author is real enough and clearly believes in his positions.

Mutualism is probably the ethic most important to him, meaning the rejection of capitalist exchange and the pursuit of self-interest in favour of the development of the commons. The commons has been an important theme of much recent literature but Mould wants to assert a planetary version. This is not globalisation, which he sees as capitalism’s homogenising project, but a planet-wide celebration of ethical and cultural diversity (although that does not extend to believers in individualism).

Yet most successful commons have been rooted in communities that share sufficient characteristics to exercise mutual trust or, beyond that, develop institutions to formalise trust. Ironically, Mould makes the same mistake as those neoliberals who cite the medieval lex mercatoria as evidence that markets do not need the support of a state or law—they miss the fact that medieval merchants operated through trust networks of familial, local and religious connections, not markets alone. Mould relies on a spontaneous, planet-wide sense of a shared commons because he does not want to see formal institutions, these for him being the essence of capitalism. This really is utopia as ‘no place’.

Twisted aspirations

Behind many of Mould’s contentions is the assumption that capitalism is to blame for nearly all the evil humans perpetrate. It is a position shared by Tim Jackson in his Post Growth and lies behind much socialist utopian thinking: Marx’s idea of primitive communism and Rousseau’s sauvage noble are never far away.

This runs quickly to the idea that if only we could be rid of capitalism all would be well—we need not then trouble ourselves much about the institutions we would establish to replace it. That was the trap the Bolsheviks fell into over a century ago, to be followed by generations of other communists, African and Arab nationalists and south-American revolutionaries ever since. Yes, capitalism does twist human aspirations in ghastly ways, but so have many pre-capitalist, non-capitalist and even ‘post-capitalist’ regimes.

Jackson’s version of this is however based on stronger arguments than most. His most striking point is that capitalism, certainly in its contemporary form, makes it very difficult for us to pursue anything moderately. It turns the pursuit of financial profit from the main purpose of a business to the only one, risking the destruction of the planet. As Mould too describes, it asserts that preparation for work is the only legitimate goal of education, depriving millions of the opportunity to discover the joys of knowledge and culture for their own sakes.

To appreciate the force of this argument, one has only to compare this essentially US-derived capitalist philosophy with earlier ones such as the Austrian and German Ordoliberalen. Understandably but excessively, their knowledge of Stalinism and Hitlerism led them to an extreme rejection of the role of the state and a clear preference for the market. Often seen as neoliberalism’s closest predecessors, they did not however seek a world comprised solely of markets. Mainly Christians, they believed in the importance of workers having parts of their lives for leisure and recreation, free from the market’s pressures.

Today’s neoliberals, in contrast, are utterly convinced that virtually all institutions could improve their effectiveness by taking a market form and treating the maximisation of shareholder value as sole yardstick. Mould and Jackson both point to the disastrous damage to human and other life to which this logic is leading us.

Misleading thinking

For Jackson abandonment of the goal of constant economic growth is the precondition of an alternative approach. Many of his arguments fit well into recent themes in public debate, such as the need to judge a society’s ‘success’ by variables other than gross domestic product or the growing urgency of subordinating the profit motive to the fight against climate change. He insists however on going further and rejects any strategy of continued material growth. He cannot perceive any difference between the refusal of the former US president Ronald Reagan to see any limits to economic development and the ‘green growth’advocated by those who sustain elements of the growth ideal.

This is misleading thinking. Green growth is usually considered to mean technologies that considerably reduce the use of non-renewable resources, not only in their own production but in their application throughout the economy. It will enable us to combat climate change while preserving some limited impetus to growth.

If we ignore these possibilities the world will not turn instead to a purer no-growth strategy but will revert to the climate-change-denial model of capitalism. This is why it is so dangerous to deny the reformability of capitalism. In a Manichean conflict between the advocates of neoliberalism and those who insist on the total replacement of capitalism by an as-yet unknown system, the former are bound to win.

Saying farewell entirely to growth would bring further risks. Back in the 1950s, the British intellectual and Labour politician Anthony Crosland argued in The Future of Socialism that redistribution was easier to achieve in a growing economy than a static one. If the incomes of the rich were increasing, they would not mind so much if the poor received a higher proportion of that growth than did they. Opposition to redistribution would become more difficult to cope with if there were no growth.

Since 2008 we have had a chance to witness what happens to social generosity in a time of zero or negative growth. Many people have become pessimistically conservative, desperately hanging on to what they possess, keen to identify outsiders whose claims to a share in a diminishing pie can be rejected. Hence the success of right-wing xenophobic movements. This does not only affect the rich; it is at least as much the case with those who have just a little to defend. We need some positive growth—extensively shared—to enable people to have the confidence to hold liberal and generous attitudes.

Even more complex

The question is even more complex than this. The wealthy whom Crosland had in mind had experienced two world wars and a major depression, and might be expected to feel a certain gratitude that life was better, a gratitude that might extend to accepting some redistribution. As Thomas Piketty showed in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, most democratic countries saw important reductions in inequality during the postwar period. Crosland’s expectations became less likely to be fulfilled once capitalism entered the extreme maximising turn Jackson describes. Greed replaced gratitude and Piketty has plotted the subsequent rise in inequality.

By 2014 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was expressing its concern that, between 1975 and the eve of the financial crisis in 2007, the top 1 per cent of US earners had appropriated 47 per cent of the country’s economic growth. It does not take much imagination to see how dissatisfaction with static incomes led many to seek to cling to what they had. Crosland’s dictum had not been wrong but he was unable to see its contextual constraints.

Jackson would argue that this only serves to show the dire limitations of a capitalist strategy that places all emphasis on the pursuit of material growth. And he is right to call for a redirection of public policy away from obsession with GDP towards wider goals:

The state has a duty to enable—and not to prevent—its citizens in the pursuit of a genuine prosperity: to ensure their ability to pursue healthy and active lives; to facilitate the conditions for psychological and social wellbeing; to develop the ability to find flow; to encourage the creativity that enriches both performer and recipient; to nurture the transcendental nature of art; and perhaps even to protect the space within which people are free not to crave.

But it is naïve to think that this can replace citizens’ desire for confidence in their material position. It is usually only those who have achieved some comfort, and feel confident that their material life will not deteriorate, who can go on to derive greater life satisfaction from these other goals.

This is not a plea for more and more social mobility, which can be just another way of fostering fixation on working life. Jackson’s list does not require mobility as such but it does require the liberation of education from capitalism’s grip, so that it can broaden horizons for rewarding uses of time outside work for people in many types of occupation. It is however also necessary to recall that, whatever role capitalism has played in narrowing so many people’s life perspectives, actually-existing people are the crooked timber with which all reformers have to work.

Four-day working week

This brings us to the plea by Coote, Harper and Stirling for a move to a four-day working week, including how this might be achieved and the better life reduced working hours would bring. This pragmatic and sensible contribution confronts a contemporary capitalism which has schooled us in the supposed virtues of 24/7 work, zero-hours contracts and the need for workers to accept jobs under virtually any conditions to avoid unemployment.

Not so many decades ago, observers pondered the problem of the ‘leisure society’: machines were making our work so efficient that we would not need to work for very long and would need to fill our days with other activities. Instead, a different logic prevailed. Improved labour productivity meant fewer hours were needed to produce a given output; maximum profits would then be made if working hours were not reduced or, better still, increased. If capitalism is unchallenged, it will press on with the latter approach. That was the logic of the absolutely maximising capitalism which philosophers of the leisure society failed to anticipate but Jackson enables us to understand.

As I have argued, history shows capitalism will adapt to challenges to its narrow-minded greed when those challenges can wield some power against it. This was achieved by the working-class movement when it could clearly threaten capitalism’s future, wringing from it the concessions of a welfare state and demand management for full (male) employment. Although that class has declined in size and power, the welfare state has survived many of neoliberalism’s attacks on it and in a post-pandemic world it may even regain ground.

The women’s movement has also shown—again given some power resource—that capitalism is not necessarily an enemy to human improvement. And if it has taken visible evidence of man-made climate change and the positive rage of masses of young people to shift governments and businesses to take environmental damage seriously, here there is more practical action today than even five years ago.

The New Economics Foundation needs power resources if its entirely reasonable proposals for a four-day working week are to enter serious debate. The search for such resources is therefore a central need for capitalism’s critics. I cannot think this will be helped by Mould’s determined minoritarianism. Jackson might have come closer but he spends more time discussing steering a boat under a medieval bridge in East Anglia or presenting the American poet Emily Dickinson as an example of the benefits of a life of voluntary lockdown than in exploration of these practicalities.

Scope for alliances

Feminists and environmentalists have mounted the most successful challenges to neoliberalism. In comparison, the weakness of trade unions stands out as a major problem. But there is scope for alliances.

Much of the argument for a four-day week is concerned with family life and caring activities—historically and even today primarily female concerns. We need to look to a feminisation of trade unions, to make them more representative of the modern workforce and to turn their attention to issues of work-life balance. Given that almost everywhere women now comprise a majority of union membership, this is not a utopian expectation.

More problematic is a rapprochement between the labour and green movements, so often at loggerheads when the latter are presented (or present themselves) as enemies of growth. This is where the recent exploration of ‘green growth’ strategies is potentially so valuable.

With more organisational unity and drive among capitalism’s critics some utopian ideas might belong more to a ‘good place’ than to ‘no place’. But this requires those critics to follow Coote et al and concentrate on building alliances and accumulating power resources.

Colin Crouch is a professor emeritus of the University of Warwick and external scientific member of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies at Cologne. He has published within the fields of comparative European sociology and industrial relations, economic sociology and contemporary issues in British and European politics.

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