There have been many books published about the failures of the global economic system since the onset of the financial crash since 2007-08, but two in particular compel attention. The first is Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level (2009), which analysed in great depth the many ways in which inequality harms society and people's life-chances. The second is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), a magisterial historical overview of the entire system of capital whose copious research examines its inconsistencies and shows how its very structure consolidates extremes of wealth and poverty, and prevents it from delivering equity.
A common reaction to The Spirit Level among hostile commentators was that it merely repeated what everyone already knew, that inequality is bad. This dismissal reflected a wider consternation of free-market ideologues who were unable to counter the book's arguments. The book (subtitled "why more equal societies almost always do better") survived the sneers, and continues to be a major influence on social and economic thinking about a better system.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century is already being greeted by the same charge of stating the obvious. Yet its remarkable, grounded analysis of how the economic system is failing to deliver socio-economic justice - and indeed going into reverse - presents a huge challenge to the apostles of open-market capitalism.
In both cases, then, vigorous detraction by faithful devotees of the existing model is unlikely to diminish these books' impact. Taken together, the changemaking opportunity of the two studies would be even further enhanced were they augmented by an analysis of the global system which takes into account wider dimensions of environment and security. Many columns in this series have examined these aspects; they were also usefully summarised in Global Responses to Global Threats (Oxford Research Group, 2006).
The four dynamics
This strand of argument concentrates on four global trends - including how they interact and can best be addressed:
* The inabiity of the global system to deliver equity and emancipation, leading to the relative marginalisation of the majority of the world’s people
* The increasing impact of environmental limitations on human activity, especially in relation to climate disruption
* The worldwide improvement in education, literacy and communications over the past half century, transforming societal potential in so many countries
* The persistence of the control paradigm as the appropriate security response - maintaining the status quo, if need be by the use of military force.
The first two trends are hugely serious on their own account, and taken together demand a vigorous and urgent response.
The third is, paradoxically, a relative success-story and greatly to be welcomed; but it carries a real sting, because it means that far more people are becoming knowledgable of their own exclusion - and thus, understandably frustrated and resentful. This trend underlies many of the anti-capital outbursts of recent years; it is also directly related to the evolution of radical and even violent movements, including many in the middle east and south Asia.
The fourth trend is typified by, but not limited to, the military invasion and occupation of states, as with Iraq or Afghanistan. The violent outcome of these ventures has meant a shift from tens of thousands of "boots on the ground" to more subtle and less accountable forces - including privatised military companies, special forces and ubiquitous armed-drones. This strategic move may be challenged but a larger rethinking is needed to change attitudes.
And yet change is in the air - and it involves more than the questioning of capitalism's open-market stage. Bit by bit, climate disruption is being recognised as a threat to the whole world that requires radical action. An amusing if still serious indicator of this has been the changed attitude of the Economist to the issue. Until the early 2000s this bellwether of the economic system was sceptical, giving plenty of space to critiques from almost every quarter. Now, it is at least modestly more balanced, giving the sense that its well-informed science staff have battled through endless internal editorial debates to persuade their colleagues to “get real” and accept the obvious on climate disruption. Perhaps a dawning sense that money can be made out of green trends has contributed, but in the wider scheme of things that should not be decried.
There is, in short, significant movement in two areas: critical questioning of the open-market model, and wider acceptance of climate disruption. Wilkinson and Pickett's book, and now Piketty's, are vital contributions on the economic and social dimensions of the current crisis; so should be the global arguments on environment and security. These signs of progress are a start, no more. But if they are followed by serious exploration of radical responses, they could bring nearer the transformations of attitude and approach that current global trends demand.