Ok, so this is a bit of a departure from my usual reading of a military history bent. And equally, I tend to steer clear of politics, not wanting to alienate anyone – or myself for that matter – due merely to party politics. But my brother bought me this book for Christmas as a leftfield wildcard kind of gift, and I have found reading it to be a revelation.
Since the 1980’s, and in particular the conservative economic policies of Reagan and Thatcher, free market economic policy has been an orthodoxy, not quite globally but certainly in the North Atlantic area. The philosophy is that the less you interfere and meddle in the economy, the more everything will turn out better for everyone, and income will trickly down and we will all live happily ever after.
Chang is also quite pertinent in question the manner in which the United States is always, without fail, held up as the poster boy of economic success. I cannot help but think that this is down to the historical legacy of the ‘american dream’, and a pinch of american narrow-mindedness. Whilst the US does have a strong economy, a high proportion of its wealth is distributed at the very top of its earning spectrum, whereas other countries, such as Sweden, might not have so many billionaires, but they have fewer of their citizens living in abject poverty. It all depends on exactly HOW we measure economic prosperity.
Essentially, I think Chang presents a stern critique of free-market capitalism, whilst defending capitalism itself as a broader concept. I can understand where he is coming from. I come from working class roots, and I would have to say I lean firmly to the left when it comes to equality and social justice in society, but at the same time I believe it is important to have an independent, ‘can-do’ spirit. The problem with free-market ideology, as I see it, is that when you remove all rules, the lowest common denominator wins out – ie, in crude terms, shit floats to the top. Hence the rise of the yuppy.
I was also much taken by Chang’s assertion that the Post Industrial Era is a myth. Why? Well, much of the world is still producing, ie, manufacturing. There IS still money to be made from making things, it is just that some countries chose to abandon their manufacturing industries and move towards service based economies. The Post-Industrial tag seems to be an attempt to justify the abandonment of production, if nothing else. Not that service based industries have really worked out very well for Britain anyway.
Another aspect that Chang examines very succinctly is that of the welfare state. Many argue, mostly in the US, that a bloated welfare state not only costs the country money, but encourages the lower classes to be lazy, knowing that they do not have to work too hard to survive. Yet it could be argued – Chang does, and I tend to agree – that having a welfare state means that employees are able to take more risks, knowing that if things do not work out or if their employer goes bust, they will not be on the breadlines. This is the case in most European states, whereas in the US, employees could be excused for playing it safe and protecting their jobs, as losing ones job means losing everything, due to a virtual non-existance of any kind of welfare support. This means effectively that you only get one decent shot at a career, or a business – which is hardly conducive to innovation and risk taking!
Chang’s final point is that whilst we have learnt the lessons of the 2008 crash, the credit crunch, we have yet to reform the financial industries to take into account these lessons. The credit crunch showed that free market ideology leads to irresponsible and dangerous behaviour, but the banks and stock markets have been unaffected since their disastrous actions. Why? well, one suspects that bankers and stockbrokers have enough influence to protect their interests politically, but it also shows the extent to which free market-ism is taken as a given in modern society. Perhaps it is down to the false notion that western capitalism ‘won’ the Cold War over eastern communism, and therfore must surely be superior?
In conclusion, I don’t think we can exclude politics from anything that we discuss, in terms of history or military affairs. After all, who makes the decisions and shapes the policy? And for that matter, don’t economic forces drive defence procurement?
- Prof Ha-Joon Chang breaks it down for us! (ajummaaboutkorea.wordpress.com)
- 23 things they didn’t tell you about Capitalism (environz.org)
- Anti-capitalist? Too simple. Occupy can be the catalyst for a radical rethink | Ha-Joon Chang (guardian.co.uk)
- Perhaps Newt Gingrich filched his bright ideas from Europe | Ha-Joon Chang (guardian.co.uk)