Elite Anxiety: Paul Collier’s “Future of Capitalism”

Paul Collier, the controversial Oxford professor famous for his development work and his acclaimed books Exodus and The Bottom Billion, is back. But the author of Exodus and The Bottom Billion is long gone. The compelling writing and carefully reasoned world that made Bottom Billion impossible to put down has somehow disappeared. In The Future of Capitalism, Collier is tired. He is bitter. And he is sometimes quite mad – so mad that his disdain for this or that group of thinkers or actors in society consumes his otherwise brilliant analytical mind.

Instead of having his editors moderate those of his worst impulses, he doubles down on his polemic conviction. Indeed, he takes pride in offending people in all political camps, believing that it supports the book’s main intellectual point: ideologues of every persuasion are dangerous, one-size-fits-all too constricted for a modern society and we should rather turn to a communitarian social democratic version of pragmatism – by which he means some confused mixture of ideas that seem to advocate “what works” on a case-by-case basis.

Yes, it’s about as nutty as it sounds. And he is all over the place, dabbling in all kinds of topics for which he is uniquely unqualified to offer advice: ethics, finance, education, family, social policy and on and on and on.

One reason The Future of Capitalism went awry might have been the remarkable scope: capturing all the West’s so-called ‘Anxieties’ – and their solutions – in little over 200 pages of non-academic prose. Given the topic, a very unfitting sort of hubris.

Apart from the feeble attempt at portraying a modern society that has “come apart at the seams,” there’s no visible story, no connection between the contents of one paragraph and the next and hardly any connection between one chapter and another. Rather, it’s a bedlam of foregone conclusions, appeals to pragmatism, dire stings to ideological ‘extremists’ on either side and a hubris unfitting for someone like Collier. I guess this is a risk that established academics run at the end of their careers, desperately trying to assemble all their work into One Grand Theory.

The most charitable thing I can say about Collier’s attempt is that it offers a lot of policy prescriptions – tax unearned land rents, tax-and-redistribute productivity increases, expand housing supply through local governments, have governments direct the Silicon Valley-clusters of tomorrow, cap mortgage finance, benefits for families, expand ethical responsibilities of firms, encourage marriage, create a new G6 (EU, US, Russia, India, Japan, China) that could overcome the global collective action problem (good luck with that!), expand Germanic vocational training and workers’ representation on company boards, embrace patriotism but never nationalism, detach ownership from control and place control with stakeholders (workers, suppliers, local homeowners).

The common denominator seems to be an imperative to do all these things that seem to have worked well in some time or place or utopia, conveniently ignore institutional or cultural reasons, while espousing all ideological positioning and political capture.

Just voicing the suggestions ought to spark at least some fruitful conversations.

Chapter 8, ostensibly concerned with the Class Divide, is an illuminating case study. It takes Collier about 36 pages (out of 37) to mention ‘class’ (not that I blame him: the concept is way too nebulous and politically infected to be meaningfully dealt with in such short space). Instead, Collier discusses all kinds of topics whose relevance to class is quite unclear: public policy for single mothers, German vocational training, lawyers and the rule of law, a Yorkshire project to encourage reading in school kids – not to mention a ten-page digression into the institution of marriage for stable families.

When his polemics, dry writing, unsupported analysis or incomprehensive treatment of a topic hasn’t put me off (I gave up on the book at least four times during the last couple of months), some of the picture Collier paints does resonate with me. There is a social and geographical divide in Britain: the economically flourishing South-East, dominated by the well-educated English and the cosmopolitan accents of almost every language on the planet, is posited against the collapsing towns of the backward Midlands or the North. If this divide is real – in support of which Collier offers next-to-no evidence – it is not clear to me that it wasn’t already captured in, say, David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere or Branko Milanovic’s Global Inequality, or for that matter the countless of magazine articles trying to outline the fractures that Brexit unearthed about British society. Considering the effort those authors put into mapping their divides, Collier’s attempt seems frivolous.

He can do better. Much better.
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My fellow Notewriter Rick is organising a summer reading group around Feyerabend’s Against Method. The equivalent Collier reading group could be aptly named Against Ideology.