Where Marx was right and Thatcher wrong

The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton on capitalism in crisis

Roger Scruton
Sunday 16 August 1998 00:02 BST

THE LABOUR government began with a promise to end the "boom-bust" economy. Now it is facing the prospect of a serious recession. So where does the Labour Party stand on capitalism? Thumbs up, or thumbs down? When Margaret Thatcher was in office, the thumbs were decidedly down. Asked for the cause of any social evil - crime, drugs, the collapse of inner cities - Labour politicians would point to the "culture of greed" which they pinned on Thatcher. They associated this culture with big business, with the City, with free enterprise, free trade and free markets. Is it surprising, they asked us, that British society is crumbling, that loyalty, decency, compassion and the life of the spirit are vanishing, when the government measures everything in monetary terms? Is it surprising that our country appears more and more to be a nation without a soul, when its leaders are advised by businessmen, bestow honours on businessmen, and look forward to being businessmen when finally thrown out - or up?

It is easy to sympathise with those accusations; less easy to describe the alternative. The Soviet Union has cured most people of the socialist illusion. The great socialist experiment was a disaster, economically and socially. Crime and vandalism may have been less apparent in the old Soviet Union; but only because they were monopolised by the Party. Since then, like everything else, they have been privatised - usually to the very people who controlled them in the past. We now see the moral reality that decades of terror suppressed: a society in which cold calculation prevails over every form of social duty, and we can also see - in last week's economic crisis - the consequences of privatisation when the sense of social duty is destroyed.

Still, the failure of socialism does not let capitalism off the hook. There is something wrong with a society that is governed entirely by the imperatives of business, which recognises no restraint on trade apart from the market, and which makes business and enterprise into its primary values. When Marx and Engels composed the Communist manifesto they did not condemn capitalism for its economic power. They condemned it for its human cost. "It has left no other nexus between man and man," they wrote, "than callous 'cash payment'. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour ... in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom - Free Trade." Exaggerated, of course. But not without truth. Even if we dismiss Marx's alternative as naive in its ends and wicked in its means, we should not dismiss the moral insight from which it derives - namely, that the free market left to itself is both a creative and a destructive force.

That, in a nutshell, is what the Labour Party and its gurus repeated in the Thatcher years and more mutedly during the grey interregnum of John Major. But it is not what they are saying now. Under Tony Blair, business is still firmly in the driving seat. The Prime Minister appoints business moguls to the House of Lords with the same unconscionable enthusiasm as Margaret Thatcher: he has even made Lord Sainsbury a junior minister in the Department of Trade and Industry - the very department which, if Labour stands for anything, ought to be controlling people like Lord Sainsbury. Look at Labour policy in any of the areas in which the capitalist giants have an interest - Europe, EMU, mergers and monopolies, the environment, agribusiness - and you will see electoral promises and moral convictions crumbling before the imperatives of trade. The argument has been accepted, as it was accepted under Thatcher, that prosperity means growth, that growth means globalisation, and that globalisation means the abolition of local restraints. Forbid us to become big in Britain, the moguls say, and we will go elsewhere, taking our capital, our taxes, our jobs and your prosperity with us.

In any real emergency governments quickly perceive the stupidity of globalisation. Finding ourselves at war with Germany, we understood - too late - the merits of local manufacture and self-sufficient farming. But modern politics is conducted entirely as though emergencies were a thing of the past. The political process is not merely one of "spin-doctoring"; it is an exercise in collective amnesia. Even so, the Asian crisis ought to have awoken the Labour Party to the dangers: by internationalising our economy, we tie ourselves to catastrophes we cannot prevent.

But there is a more important reason to return to the old socialist critique. Loyalty, duty, honesty: these are things that cannot be bought. In an unrestrained market, therefore, they are driven out by things which can. Bribery, corruption and sleaze take the place of accountability. The market depends upon honesty, but left to itself will destroy honesty. Which is why the market has been successful only when not left to itself - only when subjected to religious and moral constraints which safeguard the store of human virtue.

It is not only public life that is open to corruption by the market; private life, too, is at risk. This used to go without saying: not only Old Labour, but the Tory party, too, used to decry the commercialisation of sacred things. Indecency, obscenity and blasphemy were instantly recognised, and instantly condemned. It was common knowledge that things with a value ought not to be degraded into things with a price. Sex, for example, should not be displayed as an object of exchange between strangers. Our retiring chief censor, James Ferman, now argues that, by permitting some forms of porn, you can more effectively arm yourself against others, specifically those that involve violence or children. Such is the naivety of the liberal mind, which imagines that you can allow the free exchange of goods and then keep people out of the market. All markets, once permitted, will bring new buyers and sellers. Paedophilia cannot be combated by permitting porn, since porn creates the frame of mind that sees nothing wrong with paedophilia.

Mr Blair describes himself as a Christian socialist: he is no such thing. Like Baroness Thatcher, he is a 19th-century liberal. He may never have said "you can't buck the market", but he acts as though it were true. If he were to put his religious principles into political practice, he would be a Christian capitalist. For capitalism is just another name for the market, and the market is here to stay. Indeed, we should say of the market what Churchill said of democracy: a very bad system, but the alternatives are worse. Just as democracy needs laws and institutions to protect the things that are not to be voted on, so the market needs moral and religious scruples to withhold the things that are not to be traded.

Religion rescues from the tyranny of price all those things that have an enduring and non-commercial value: love, marriage and the family; loyalty, honesty and self-restraint. If these things are not rescued, then society will disintegrate, and the market will disintegrate along with it. This is the message that we should be hearing from our leaders: that there are things which are too important to be bought and sold. It is a message that the Pope does not tire of repeating. But it is a message that will never be given prominence, so long as business remains in the driving seat.

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