Notebook: A small saver and capitalism's crisis

Click to follow
LIKE MOST people, I do not know enough about money. There is a probably untrue story about David Astor, who edited The Observer in its glory days, which is told to show how unworldly and, as an Astor, how rich he was. One day in the Fifties or early Sixties someone at one of his editorial conferences mentioned that the mortgage rate was going up; the paper should take an interest on behalf of its readers. "Tell me," Astor is said to have said, "what is a mortgage exactly?"

The system of borrowing money to buy a house was explained to him. Astor asked if many people on the paper did it. Yes, he was told, very many, almost everybody.

"Good heavens," Astor is said to have exclaimed, "you mean to tell me that most of my staff are in debt?"

Unlike Astor, I've known about mortgages for some years now, though (and how strange it seems now to remember this) I don't think I had any clear idea about them until my mid-twenties. Personal circumstance explains this ignorance, just as it explains Astor's: I grew up among council rents and, other than an aunt and uncle, I can't think I knew anyone who borrowed money to "own" their own home. But money then was altogether less invasive of ordinary life. Now the Nine O'Clock News closes every night with the rate of the pound against the Mark and the dollar and how much the Dow and the Footsie have gone up or down. Not so long ago, such information would have seemed arcane, of interest only to those men in bowler hats who crossed London Bridge every morning at 9.30 on their way from the suburbs to the City. Now we are all meant to know about money and its movements, and perhaps, after consulting the personal finance pages, to act on what we know.

Recently, probably because I'm 53 and don't have the prospect of much of a pension (no literature or cold-calling please), I've become an obsessive reader of these pages. What should I do with my savings? I understand Tessas, but should I have a Pep? And if a Pep, one that tracks the London index or one in European stocks? The advice is cautious and sometimes contradictory. Part of the difficulty is terminology. The further you stray from savings rates and into higher finance, the more the reader's knowledge is assumed by the writer. I think, thanks to a patient piece in the new issue of the New York Review of Books, that I have a glimmer of understanding of hedge funds. Derivatives, on the other hand, remain opaque (as an editor, I more than once asked an Astor-like question about derivatives at editorial meetings; the answer from the business section always included the phrase "impossibly complicated").

But, as we know now, understanding these things is not necessarily much of a help. The behaviour of stock markets can never be predicted with real certainty - risk is their lifeblood - and this year they have become especially unpredictable. I could, for example, take a punt on a Pep in European stock in the belief that the economy of mainland Europe will do better in the next few years than Britain's is expected to. Or I could read George Soros's new book and decide that my money was better off in the Dunfermline Building Society or in gold trinkets under the bed. It depends on how you see the future of global capitalism, and Soros, who has the soundest of credentials as the world's most famous currency speculator, takes a very dim view indeed.

He writes: "The range of probabilities lies between a cascading decline of the stock markets and a more drawn-out process of deterioration. I think the latter more likely." In a book peppered with phrases such as "the final crisis" and metaphors for global capitalism such "bubonic plague" and "wrecking-ball", this, believe me, is one of his more optimistic predictions.

Soros's is one of at least three new books that examine the instability of the world economy and challenge the idea that is now with us like the weather; nothing can be done. Of these authors, the one who deserves the most honour is, I think, John Gray - not because he is published by Granta Books (small declaration of interest, hardly in the Geoffrey Robinson class: I edit Granta magazine); nor because Soros himself pays a handsome tribute to him; but because he was more right, sooner, than anyone else. Gray finished his book just after Blair's victory in May last year, a month or so before Thailand's currency began to collapse, which in recent history is the equivalent of that shot in Sarajevo in 1914.

Even when his book was first published, in March this year, you would have been wiser to have read it as a guide to the world's future behaviour than, say, The Wall Street Journal, though that wasn't a popular opinion at the time. Many reviews were hostile. He was attacked as wildly pessimistic. And now only a few months later, after Indonesia, South Korea, Russia, his thoughts seem almost conventional. In a postscript to False Dawn: the delusions of global capitalism, which was republished last week, he writes: "Markets were made to serve man, not man the market. In a global free market the instruments of economic life have become dangerously emancipated from social control and political governance." Even the World Bank agrees.

And yet (like David Astor, like me and probably you) Gray wouldn't claim to be an expert in money.

He isn't even an economist. He has never been a Marxist. He is the Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, and his arguments are drawn from culture and history, which in his view are more certain, indeed the only, guides to human behaviour. As he said when we met last week: "The closer you get to markets, the fewer people you meet who have faith in them."

The great qualities of his book, as of him, are clarity and a kind of pungent scepticism, like strong unmilked, unsweetened tea. He writes assertively. He said he hadn't wanted to hedge his bets. "I wrote the book to attack a consensus that was seen then as common sense," he said.

"The critics of the global market had been driven to the margin. It had become a world view, every mainstream political party subscribed to it as historic inevitability. The only people openly questioning it were people like the Ralph Nader, the Greens, academics in development studies. My view was always that it was a political project with prospects that weren't too good."

Gray's journey towards this view, however, has been in some ways an unusual one. He was born 50 years ago in South Shields on Tyneside; his father was a carpenter. Shorthand descriptions of origins can deceive, but it would be reasonable to imagine from this one that his attacks on the free- market come from the Left. Not at all. Throughout the 1980s he was known as a Thatcherite academic, whose views were sometimes listened to (if not actually heeded) by the lady herself. So how did he get from there to here?

During our talk, two reasons emerged. The first is that the global free market requires people to think and behave differently - just as differently, in Gray's opinion, as successful Marxism would. In the second, there is the figure of the universal worker; in the first, the universal consumer. Both ideologies see the need for human security as irrational and dispensable. Gray doesn't believe in what he called this "hubristic humanism" which owes so much to Christianity and the Enlightenment of the 18th century. He quoted the Edinburgh philosopher David Hume: "All plans of government which suppose great reformation in the manners of mankind are plainly imaginary."

Gray said: "The future will always be more like the past than any of our hopes for it. For instance, the idea that America has found a new paradigm of growth [no recessions, steadily onwards and upwards], that's plainly imaginary." He didn't believe in the "political romanticism" - which political parties still sell, despite gathering scepticism - that "good things can be achieved without consequent bads in their shadows". In other words, there is often a downside.

Second, he believed that people were far more strongly attached to their cultures than globalisation allowed. Japan was not China, Britain was not the USA. "There are quite severe limits to the extent that different cultures can replicate each other's achievements. That's a very fundamental for me. It explains my hostility both to Marxism and to global laissez- faire.

"Cultural traditions are repositories of meanings for people's lives. There will always be death and accidents and grief, and we'll still be confronted by the same facts of mortality and contingency."

Later, Gray and I went for a meal and over the coffee he indulged me in my new obsession: Peps, pensions, the most prudent place to put one's money. Eventually, he said: "Perhaps the best prudence in this situation is imprudence," meaning, I think, that I should spend it on goods or property.

That, in this new Age of Uncertainty, may be the best advice. It would also, if widely followed, forestall the coming recession, though not the one after that.

The Crisis of Global Capitalism, by George Soros, published by Little Brown at pounds 17.99;

False Dawn: the delusions of global capitalism, by John Gray, published by Granta Books at pounds 8.99.