It is far to say that supporters of "free-market" capitalism make the claim that their system not only benefits everyone, but especially working class people (indeed, the very poorest sectors of society). This was the position during the so-called "anti-globalisation" protests at the turn of the 21st century, when the issue of global inequality and poverty was forced to the front of politics (for a time). In response, the likes of the Economist portraying itself and the big businesses seeking lower costs and higher profits as the real champions of the poor (particularly in the third world).
In this perspective growth is the key to reducing (absolute) poverty rather than, say, redistribution, struggle for reforms by means of direct action and popular self-organisation or (heaven forbid!) social revolution. The logic is simple. Economic growth of 1% per year will double an economy in 70 years, while 3% does so in just over 23 years and 5% growth takes a mere 15 years. Thus the standard right-wing argument is that we should promote "free market" capitalism as this is a growth machine par excellence. In fact, any form of redistribution or social struggle is considered counter-productive in this viewpoint as it is harms overall growth by either scaring away capital from a country or blunts the incentives of the elite to strive to "produce" more wealth. Over time, wealth will (to coin a well-worn phrase) "trickle down" from the wealthy to the many.
What to make of this claim? Again, it does contain an element of truth. As capitalism is a "grow or die" economy (see section D.4), obviously the amount of wealth available to society increases for all as the economy expands. So the poor will, in general, be better off absolutely in any growing economy (at least in economic terms). This was the case under Soviet state capitalism as well: the poorest worker in the 1980s was obviously far better off economically than one in the 1920s. As such, what counts is relative differences between classes and periods within a growth economy. Given the thesis that free-market capitalism will benefit the poor especially, we have to ask: is this actually true and, of so, can the other classes benefit equally well? This means we need to ask whether the assumption to concentrate on absolute poverty or inequality rather that relative values makes more sense. Similarly, we need to question the assumption that "free market" capitalism is the growth machine its supporters assert and whether the benefits of the growth it produces does, in fact, "trickle down." Questioning these assumptions is essential.
The key problem with evaluating such claims is, of course, the fact that an economy, like a society, is a very complex system which evolves through time. There are few opportunities for "controlled experiments" with which to test differing analyses and theories. This means that any attempt to analysis these claims must be based on looking at different countries and time periods in order to contrast them. Thus we will look at the same countries at different periods (the more social democratic post-war period to the more neo-liberal post-1980s and more neo-liberal countries with those in which free-market "reforms" have not been pushed as far). As we will show, the track record of "free(r) market" capitalism has been, at best, distinctly unimpressive and, at worse, significantly poorer.
However, this appeal to reality will not convince many supporters of capitalism. For the true believer in the capitalist market, this kind of evidence does not create doubt in their ideas, only the conviction that the experiments did not go far enough. Thus, for the ideologue, freer market capitalism handily tell us nothing about free market capitalism -- unless, of course, they can be portrayed as an "economic miracle" (regardless of the facts). For "advocates of the market," the sanctity of private property and private contracts is held as an inalienable natural right. To refute charges that this Will simply benefit the already wealthy they spend much time arguing that unfettered capitalism is also the only economic system which will produce the greatest benefit for the greatest number. In other words, that absolute capitalist markets and private property rights coincides exactly with personal interest. A clearer example of wishful thinking could hardly be asked for. Yet it is not hard to see what function this plays. Few people will be persuaded by their assumptions on property and markets, given the common sense objection that free exchange between the weak and the strong will, obviously, benefit the latter more. Yet more people may be convinced to go along with "free market" proposals by considerations of economic efficiency and the hope that the poor will see their living standards improve over time (particularly if "experts" with economics degrees are involved as people often assume they know what they are talking about).
Now, the empirical track-record of what is called capitalism is decidedly mixed. There are three courses of action open to the market advocate. The first is to embrace the property-rights argument wholeheartedly, and say that we should adopt pure capitalism even if it hurts a large percentage of the population because it is the right thing to do. This would be unconvincing for most people as economic austerity and serf-like working conditions in return for protecting the power and property rights of the few who actually own the wealth would find few (sane or disinterested) supporters. Then it could be argues that the empirical track-record of "actually existing" capitalism should be ignored in favour of economic ideology as reality is simply not pure enough. That, again, would be unconvincing for the obvious reason that we would be being asked to have faith in the validity of economics (as we have noted before, this would not be wise given its surreal assumptions and non-scientific nature). This would have one positive side-effect, as doing this would mean that that "market advocates" would have to stop claiming that all the good things we have are due to something (capitalism) that does not exist. So that option is unlikely to have many supporters or convince many. Finally, it could be argued that contrary to appearances capitalism really does benefit everyone. While this option is not compatible with intellectual honesty, it is by the far the most popular within the ranks of "market advocates." This is undoubtedly because the wealth and corporations are always willing to pay well for people happy to defend their power and profits against the reality they produce.
So what of the claim that capitalism is the best way to help them poor, that capitalism will especially benefit working class people? To make sense (i.e. to be more than simply a rhetoric assertion), it must rest on two basic notions. Firstly, that "free market" capitalism will have a higher growth rate than alternative forms of that system (such state capitalism or regulated capitalism). Secondly, that inequality will be less and share of wages in the national income more in "free market" than in other systems (this must be the case, otherwise "free market" reforms do not especially help working class people). We will discuss the first claim here, before discussing the track record of neo-liberalism in the next section followed a discussion of the history of capitalism and free trade in section C.10.2. We then analysis the failings of the equality defence in section C.10.3 before ending with a discussion on the limitations of looking at income and growth in evaluating how capitalism benefits the working class (section C.10.4). As we show, there is substantial evidence to suggest that the standard defences of "free market" capitalism are not up to much. Let us be clear and state there is generally a positive correlation between economic growth and the income of the poor. We are not attacking economic growth as such but rather asking whether neo-liberalism's own defence actually stands up.
Looking at the historical picture, then, yes, capitalism does produce much more economic growth than previous social systems such as slavery and feudalism. However, defending capitalism on the basis that it better than a slave based economy is hardly a strong foundation (particularly when capitalists are happy to locate to dictatorships which have slave-like labour conditions). The more substantive argument is based on the assumption that "free market" capitalism produces faster economic growth than other forms of that system and that growth of the economic pie is more important than how it is distributed. In other words, the same (or even smaller) share of a bigger pie in the future is better than a bigger share of the existing pie. This means we need to look at the economic performance of capitalist economies, comparing the neo-liberal ones to regulated social democratic ones. We would expect the former to be performing significantly better than the latter in addition to being more dynamic after reforms than before. The reality hardly matches the claims.
The attempt to compare and contrast economies can be found in, say, the works of Milton Friedman to show the superiority of his beloved "free market" capitalism. However, as economist Thomas Balogh notes, to prove that "socialistic policies" had crippled Britain's economic growth since 1945 Friedman began "by misrepresenting the size of the public sector . . . he chooses a ratio which, though irrelevant, gives spurious support to his thesis." Equally, Friedman compares post-war Britain to post-war Japan and West Germany, conveniently failing to note that both hardly had minimal states (for example, West Germany had approximately the same level of state spending as the UK and Japan had the social planning of its Ministry of Industry and Trade). As Balogh notes, the "consequences of socialism are then illustrated by reference to the weak economic performance of Britain in comparison with Japan and Germany since 1945. This is an odd comparison to choose when judging the impact of 'socialism' on Britain. Surely what we need is to compare the British performance during a period of sustained boom under 'Friedmanism', e.g. in the period 1900-13, with the record under 'socialism,' say 1945-75." However, to do that would mean noting that the average annual rate of growth per head of GNP between 1900 and 1913 was a mere 0.2%, compared to 2.2% between 1948 and 1975. Even taking other starting dates (such as the slump year 1893) produces a smaller rate of growth that the post-war period. [The Irrelevance of Conventional Economics, p. 181]
Nor do things get better when we look at the Friedman influenced Thatcher government which turned the UK into a poster-child for neo-liberalism. Here, yet again, the facts do not really support the claims in favour of "free(r) markets". As Ian Gilmore, a moderate conservative MP at the time, points out "[d]uring the Thatcher years growth was lower than in any period of similar length since the war." He notes "the vast discrepancy between what the Thatcherites claimed for their policies and what actually happened." Unsurprisingly, there was an "unparalleled rise in poverty," as "relative poverty grew significantly during the 1980s," from a nearly a tenth in 1979 to nearly a fifth in 1987. In 1979, the poorest fifth had just under 10% of post-tax income and the richest fifth had 37%. Ten years later, this had fallen to 7% and risen to 43% ("The rich got rich, and the poor got poorer"). "Not only did the poor not share in the limited growth that took place between 1979 and 1990, the poor were relatively poorer than they had been on 1979." [Dancing with Dogma, pp. 83-4, p. 87, p. 142, p. 138 and p. 172] we will return to this issue in section C.10.3.
Things did not get any better in the 1990s. Growth in GDP per capita was steadily decreased in the UK, from 2.3% per annum between 1950 and 1970, to 2.1% between 1970 and 1979 and to 1.9% between 1979 and 1997. For the US, a similar process was at work (from 2.0%, to 2.3% to 1.5%). At best, it can be said that the growth rates of Germany and France between 1979 and 1997 were worse (at 1.7% and 1.4%, respectively). However, before 1979 their growth was much higher (at 5.1%/4.5% between 1950 and 1970 and 2.8%/3.3% between 1970 and 1979, respectively). Growth in labour productivity per hour worked is hardly impressive, being 2.3% between 1979 and 1997 compared to 0.8% for the US, 2.4% for France and 2.2% for Germany. This is well below the 1950-1970 figure of 3.0% and only slightly better than 2.1% during the strike bound 1970s. In 1979, the UK was 9th of 15 EU members in OECD measures of prosperity. By 1995, it was 11th before rising back to 10th in 1999. In summary, "the idea that Britain has a clearly superior economy to the continent is a delusion." [Adair Turner, Just Capital: The Liberal Economy, p. 200, pp. 199-200 and p. 196]
The best that can be said of Thatcherism is that during the 1980s, "Britain put an end to three decades of relative decline and caught up some lost ground versus continental leaders . . . But Britain's absolute productivity and prosperity performance is still below the European average and its pace of catch-up has been slow." Combine this with longer working hours compared to the rest of Europe, we have a situation in the UK where "too many companies relying on low wages and a flexible labour market to remain competitive, rather than on investment in capital equipment and technique." Looking at the historical picture, it should be stressed that the UK has been in decline since the 1880s, when it remained the only developed nation to embrace free trade and that between the 1950s and 1970s, the "absolute growth rates per capita . . . compared well with the inter-war years and with the period of British leadership in the nineteenth century." This lack of success for neo-liberal reforms can also be seen in New Zealand. The economic results of its liberalisation project were just as poor. Between 1984-98 per capita income grew only about 5.4%, or 0.4% per annum, well below the EU average and one of the lowest rates of increase among the OECD countries. [Turner, Op. Cit., p. 196, p. 212, p. 199 and p. 240fn] Needless to say, be cause the rich got richer and rebellious workers controlled, both the UK and New Zealand were proclaimed "economic miracles."
This lack of dynamism is not limited just to the UK or New Zealand. As left-wing economist Andrew Glyn notes, the "fact that there was no general improvement in growth in the 1980s could be explained away by the fact that the . . . policies . . . were only picking up steam. But the real puzzle is the 15 years since 1990. Why [have these free market policies] . . . failed to bring an increase in the growth rate." In fact, growth per year has steadily fallen since 1973 with 1990-2004 the lowest rate yet for the USA, Europe and Japan. This applies to other economic indicators as well. "The fact that output per head has been growing more slowly since 1990 than it did in the turbulent period 1973-9, never mind the Golden Age, must be a severe disappointment to those who believed that unleashing the free market would restore rapid growth." He summarises the evidence by pointing out that "economic performance overall has been unspectacular." [Capitalism Unleashed, pp. 130-1 and p. 151]
As Chomsky summarises, "neoliberal-style programs began to take shape in the 1970s" and since then real wages "for the majority have largely stagnated or declined . . . the relatively weak benefits system has declines as well. Incomes are maintained only be extending working hours well beyond those in similar societies, while inequality has soared" (as has personal debt). Moreover, "this is a vast change from the preceding quarter century, when economic growth was the highest on record for a protracted period and also egalitarian. Social indicators, which closely tracked economic growth until the mid-1970s, then diverged, declining to the level of 1960 by the year 200O." [Failed States, p. 211]
The assumption is that producing free(r) markets and a pure(r) capitalism will result in higher growth and so rising living standards. "So far," note two experts, "the promises have not been realised. As trade and financial markets have been flung open, incomes have risen not faster, but slower. Equality among nations has not improved, with many of the poorest nations suffering an absolute decline in incomes. Within nations, inequality seems to have worsened . . . the trend to towards more inequality." In the two decades after 1980, "overall income growth slowed dramatically." For example, the rich countries saw annual per capita income growth fall from 4.8% (1965-80) to 1.4% (1980-95). Medium countries saw a fall from 3.8% to 3.1% (excluding China, this was 3.2% to 0.6% as China rose from 4.1% to 8.6%). For the poorest nations, there was a rise from 1.4% to 2.0% but this becomes 1.2% to 0.1% when India is excluded (India saw a rise from 1.5% to 3.2%). In fact, income dropped by -0.4% a year between 1980 and 1995 for the least developed countries (it had risen 0.4% a year between 1965 and 1980). "In more advanced countries . . . income growth was lower in the 1990s than in the 1980s. Over the entire post-1980 period, it was substantially below that of the 1960s and 1970s." In America, for example, annual growth of per capita income has dropped from 2.3% between 1960-79, to 1.5% between 1979 and 1989 and 1.0% between 1989 and 1996 (per capita income growth up to 1998 was 1.4% per year, still less than the 1.6% per cent between 1973 and 1980 and 1980s and about half the growth over the 1960 to 1973 period). Given that income equality improved during the 1960s and 1970s, before worsening after 1980 for most countries, particularly the USA, this means that even these most increases flowed overwhelming to those at the top of the income hierarchy. In America, the working hours for a middle-class family has increased by 10.4% between 1979 and 1997. In other words, working class people are working more for less. In most advanced nations, there has "not been a sizeable increase in poverty," the "exceptions [being] the USA and the United Kingdom, where poverty grew, respectively, by 2.4 and 5.4 percentage points between 1979 and 1991." [Jeff Faux and Larry Mishel, "Inequality and the Global Economy", pp. 93-111, Will Hutton and Anthony Giddens (eds.), On The Edge, pp. 93-4, p. 96, p. 97, p. 98, p. 101, p. 102 and p. 100]
This lack of rise in growth is a definite feature of neo-liberalism. The promises of the "free market" capitalism have not borne fruit:
"Growth did not accelerate. It slowed down. During the 1960s, the average rate of growth of world GDP per capita was 3.5% per annum . . . The average rate of growth of world GDP per capital was 2.1% per annum during the 1970s, 1.3% per annum during the 1980s and 1% per annum during the 1990s. This growth was more volatile compared with the past, particularly in the developing world. the growth was also unevenly distributed across countries . . .
"Economic inequalities have increased in the late twentieth century as the income gap between rich and poor countries, between rich and the poor in the world's population, as also between rich and poor people within countries, has widen. The ratio of GDP per capital in the richest country to GDP per capita in the poorest country of the world rose from 35:1 in 1950 to 42:1 in 1970 and 62:1 in 1990. The ratio of GDP per capita in the 20 richest countries to GDP per capita in the poorest 20 countries of the world rose from 54:1 during 1960-62 to 121:1 during 2000-20002. The income gap between people has also widened over time. The ratio of the average GNP per capita in the richest quintile of the world's population to the poorest quintile in the world's population rose from 31:1 in 1965 to 60:1 in 1990 and 74:1 in 1997 . . . Income distribution within countries also worsened . . . Between 1975 and 2000, the share of the richest 1% in gross income rose from 8% to 17% in the US, from 8.8% to 13.3% in Canada and from 6.1% to 13% in the UK." [Deepak Nayyar, "Globalisation, history and development: a tale of two centuries," pp. 137-159, Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 153-4 and p. 154]
In fact, between 1950 and 1973 there was a vastly superior economic performance compared to what came before and what came after. If laissez-faire capitalism would benefit "everyone" more than "really existing capitalism," the growth rate would be higher during the later period, which more closely approximated laissez faire. It is not. As such, we should always remember that if anything is proclaimed an "economic miracle" it is unlikely to actually be so, at least for the working class. Looking at the American triumphantism of the late 1990s, it was easy to forget that in the 1980s and early 1990s, despair at the US economy was commonplace. Then people looked to Japan, just as they had looked to Europe in the 1960s.
We must also note that there is a standard response by believers on "laissez-faire" capitalism when inconvenient facts are presented to them, namely to stress that we have not reached the market utopia yet and more reforms are required ("a feature of hard-line free-market analysis [is] that when liberalisation does not work the reason is always timidity and the solution is obvious. Complete the job." [Glyn, Op. Cit., p. 143]). Another possible defence would be to stress that the results would have been worse if the reforms had not been implemented. These are, of course, possibilities but given the rhetoric used by the defenders of capitalism on the wonders and efficiency of free markets, it seems strange that making them freer would have such negative effects.
Looking at the history of capitalism, it appears that social-democratic capitalism, with strong unions and a welfare state, produces not only more growth but also more equitable growth (as one expert notes, "[i]f the 'welfare state' were abolished and taxes reduced accordingly, society would become a great deal more unequal." [John Hills, Inequality and the State, p. 195]). Movements to more laissez-faire capitalism has resulted not only in lower growth but also growth which accumulates in fewer hands (which makes sense considering the basic anarchist insight that a free exchange benefits the stronger of the two parties). As such, based on its own criteria (namely economic growth), then neo-liberalism has to be judged a failure. Do not get us wrong. It is possible to still advocate laissez-faire capitalism on ethical grounds (if that is the right word). It is simply doubtful that it will produce the boost in economic growth (or employment) that its advocates suggest. It may do, of course, as "actually existing" capitalism is still far from the pure system of the textbooks but it is significant that movements towards the ideal have produced less growth along with greater inequality and relative poverty.
This is not to suggest that anarchists support social-democratic capitalism rather than more laissez-faire forms. Far from it -- we seek to end all forms of that system. However, it is significant that the more equal forms of capitalism based on strong and militant unions produced better results than "free(r) market" forms. This suggests that the standard right-wing argument that collective organising and fighting to keep an increased share of the wealth we produce harms the overall economy and so harmful in the long run are deeply flawed. Instead, it is the lack of any struggle for equality and freedom that is correlated with bad overall economic performance. Of course, such struggles are a pain for the capitalist class. Rather than produce a "road to serfdom," social-democracy created the full employment environment which produced a rebellious population. The move towards "free(r) markets" was a response to this social struggle, an attempt to enserf the population which has proven to be somewhat successful. As such, Kalecki's 1940s prediction we quoted in section B.4.4 has been proven correct: the ruling class would prefer social peace (i.e. obedience) rather than higher growth (particularly if they get to monopolise most of the gains of that lower growth).
Finally, we should note that there is a slight irony to see right-wingers saying that "pure(r)" capitalism would benefit the poor especially. This is because they usually reject the idea that aggregate economic statistics are a meaningful concept or that the government should collate such data (this is a particular feature of the "Austrian" school of economics). As such, it would be near impossible to determine if living standards had improved any faster than under the current system. Given the history of "actually existing" capitalism, it is probably wise that many "market advocates" do so. Moreover, any subjective evaluation, such as asking people, which resulted in a negative response would be dismissed out of hand as "envy." Ironically, for an ideology which says it bases itself on "subjective" evaluations, economists are always ready to ignore any which conflict with their ideas. Needless to say, even if it could be proven beyond doubt that "pure(r)" capitalism did not help the poor but rather enriched the wealthy then almost all "free market" capitalists would not change their ideas. This is because, for them, the outcomes of the market are hallowed and if they result in increased poverty then so be it. It just shows that the poor are lazy and not worth higher incomes. That they sometimes utilise the rhetoric of social concern simply shows that most people still have concern and solidarity for their fellows, a concern which capitalism has not managed to totally remove (much to the chagrin of the likes of von Hayek -- see chapter 11 of Alan Haworth's Anti-Libertarianism for a short but relevant discussion of this).
Until the wave of so-called "anti-globalisation" protests (a more accurate term would be "global justice" protests) erupted in the late 1990s, there was no real need for the neo-liberal agenda to justify its performance. When opposition could not be ignored, then it had to be undermined. This lead to a host of articles and books justifying neo-liberalism in terms of it helping the world's poorest peoples. This has meant denying the reality of 30 years of neo-liberal reforms in favour of concentrating on absolute poverty figures.
This is understandable. As we discuss in the section C.10.4, absolute inequality and poverty is a good means of making discussion of the real issues meaningless. Moreover, as noted above, as capitalism must grow to survive wealth will tend to increase for all members of society over time. The real question is whether "free(r) markets increase or reduce growth rates and how they impact on relative levels of poverty and inequality. Given that the last few decades indicate how free(r) markets result in increased inequality, it is obvious why defenders of capitalism would seek to focus attention on absolute income. While denied by some, inequality has risen under globalisation. Those who deny it usually do so because the doctrines of the powerful are at stake. Some, in spite of the evidence, are that world-wide economic inequality has fallen thanks to global capitalism.
At the forefront of such claims is the Economist magazine, which played its usual role of ideological cheerleader for the ruling class. Discussing "Global economic inequality", the magazine argued that the claim that inequality has risen is false. Ironically, their own article refutes its own conclusions as it presented a graph which showed an upward relationship between economic growth from 1980 to 2000 and original income level for a large group of countries. This means that global economic inequality has increased -- as they admit, this means "that the poor are falling behind, and that cross-country inequality is getting worse." ["More or less equal?", The Economist, 11th March, 2004]
However, this conclusion is ideologically incorrect and so something must be done to achieve the correct position in order to defend capitalism against the anti-capitalist bias of reality. They did this by adding another chart which weights each point by population. This showed that two of the largest countries of their group, China and India, grew among the fastest. Using this data they make the claim that inequality has, in fact, fallen under neo-liberalism. Once you look at individuals rather than countries then the claim can be made that world-wide inequality has been falling under "free(r) market" capitalism. While an impressive piece of ideological obfuscation, the argument ignores changes within countries. The article states that "average incomes in India and China are going up extremely rapidly" but not every person receives the average. The average hides a lot. For example, 9 homeless people have an average income of £0 but add a multi-millionaire and the average income of the ten people is in the millions. On average, at the end of a game of poker everyone has the same amount of money they started with. As such, to ignore the fact that inequality increased dramatically both countries during the 1990s is disgraceful when trying to evaluate whether poverty has actually decreased or not. And it should be obvious that if inequality is increasing within a country then it must also be increasing internationally as well.
Significantly, "where governments adopted the [neo-liberal] Washington Consensus, the poor have benefited less from growth." [Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalization and its Discontents, p. 79] The mantra that economic growth is so wonderful is hard to justify when the benefits of that growth are being enjoyed by a small proportion of the people and the burdens of growth (such as rising job insecurity, loss of benefits, wage stagnation and decline for the majority of workers, declining public services, loss of local communities and so forth) are being borne by so many. Which does seem to be the case under neo-liberalism (which, undoubtedly, explains why it is portrayed so positively in the business press).
To be fair, the article does note the slow and declining incomes in the past 20 years in sub-Saharan Africa but rest assured, the magazine stresses, this area "suffers not from globalisation, but from lack of it." This means that this area can be ignored when evaluating the results of neo-liberalism. Yet this is unconvincing as these nations are hardly isolated from the rest of the world. As they are suffering from debt and western imposed structural adjustment programs it seems illogical to ignore them -- unless it is a way to improve neo-liberalism's outcomes by evading its greatest failures.
Then there is the comparison being made. The Economist looks solely at the years 1980-2000 yet surely the right comparison would be between this period and the twenty years before 1980? Once that is done, it becomes clear why the magazine failed to do so for "economic growth and almost all of the other indicators, the last 20 years have shown a very clear decline in progress as compared with the previous two decades." While it is "commonly believed that the shift towards globalisation has been a success, at least regarding growth," in fact "the progress achieved in the two decades of globalisation has been considerably less than the progress in the period from 1960 to 1980." For low and middle-income countries, performance is "much worse . . . than the period from 1960 to 1980." "Summing up the evidence on per capita income growth, countries at every level of per capita GDP performed worse on average in the period of globalisation than in the period from 1960 to 1980." [Mark Weisbrot, Dean Baker, Egor Kraev and Judy Chen, The Scorecard on Globalization 1980-2000: Twenty Years of Diminished Progress] In fact:
"The poorest group went from a per capita GDP growth rate of 1.9 percent annually in 1960-80, to a decline of 0.5 percent per year (1980-2000). For the middle group (which includes mostly poor countries), there was a sharp decline from an annual per capita growth rate of 3.6 percent to just less than 1 percent. Over a 20-year period, this represents the difference between doubling income per person, versus increasing it by just 21 percent." [Op. Cit.]
Nor should we forget that there is a "gallery of nations whose economies soured shortly after their leaders were lauded by the global policy elite for pursuing sound economic fundamentals." [Jeff Faux and Larry Mishel, Op. Cit., p. 94] This process of proclaiming the success of neo-liberalism before it implodes started with the original neo-liberal experiment, namely Pinochet's Chile whose economy imploded just after Milton Friedman proclaimed it an "economic miracle" (see section C.11).
Latin America has suffered the most attention from neo-liberalism and its institutions so it would be useful to look there for evaluating the claims of its supporters ("the IMF talks with pride about the progress that Latin America made in market reforms" [Stiglitz, Op. Cit., p. 79]). Rather than success story, there has been "a long period of economic failure: for the prior 20 years, 1980-1999, the region grew by only 11 percent (in per capita terms) over the whole period. This is the worst 20-year growth performance for more than a century, even including the years of the Great Depression." By comparison, "for the two decades from 1960-1979, Latin America experienced per capita GDP growth of 80 percent." In fact, "using the 1960-1979 period as a baseline, the quarter century for 1980-2004 is dismal. Annual growth in GDP per capita registers a mere 0.5 percent, as opposed to 3.0 percent over the previous period. Countries that are now considered relatively successful are not doing very well compared to past performance. For example, Mexico registers 0.8 percent annual per capita growth for 1980-2004, as compared with 3.3 percent for 1960-79. For Brazil, which one had one of the fastest growing economies in the world, per capita growth is only 0.8 percent annually for 1980-2004, as compared with 4.9 percent for 1960-79." For Latin America as a whole, real per-capita growth was 3.0% in the 1960s, 2.9% in the 1970s, -0.3% in the 1980s and 1.4% in the 1990s. This means that for 1980-1999, "the region's per capita GDP grew at an annual rate of only 0.5 percent, a cumulative total of 11 percent for the two decades." By comparison, "from 1960-1979, per capita growth was 3.0 percent, or 80 percent for these two decades." [Mark Weisbrot and David Rosnick, Another Lost Decade?: Latin America's Growth Failure Continues into the 21st Century] Looking at Mexico, for example, since NAFTA per capita GDP growth in Mexico has averaged less than 1.0% annually. This is an extremely poor growth record for a developing country. Successful developing countries, such as South Korea and Taiwan have managed to sustain per capita GDP growth rates that have averaged more than 4.0% since the sixties. In fact, Mexico managed to sustain a per capita GDP growth rate of more than 4.0% in the period from 1960 to 1980, when it was following a path of import substitution. But, then, neither South Korea nor Taiwan followed the dictates of neo-liberalism.
Over all it is important to stress that neo-liberalism has failed its own test:
"Economic growth over the last twenty years, the period during which [neo-liberalism] policies . . . have been put into place, has been dramatically reduced . . . to assume that the World Bank and the IMF have brought 'growth-enhancing policies' to their client countries goes against the overwhelming weight of the evidence over the last two decades . . . In short, there is no region of the world that the Bank or Fund can point to as having succeeded through adopting the policies that they promote -- or in many cases, impose -- upon borrowing countries." [Mark Weisbrot, Dean Baker, Robert Naiman, and Gila Neta, Growth May Be Good for the Poor -- But are IMF and World Bank Policies Good for Growth?]
As Chomsky summarises, the periods of fastest and prolonged growth have not coincide with phases of extensive liberalisation. In fact, neoliberal reforms have "been accompanied by much slower rates of growth and reduced progress on social indicators . . . There are exceptions to the general tendency: high growth rates were recorded among those who ignored the rules (and with tremendous inequality and other severe side effects in China and India)." Growth rates have, in fact, fell by "over half" compared to the preceding period of statist policies (particularly when measured per capita). [Op. Cit., pp. 216-7] For most countries, growth was higher in the 1950s, 1960s and even the 1970s. This suggests that neo-liberalism fails even its own tests as noted by one economist who compared the reality of successful development to the neo-liberal myth:
"the poor growth records of developing countries over the last two decades suggest this line of defence [i.e. it brings higher growth] is simply untenable . . . The plain fact is that the Neo-Liberal 'policy reforms' have not been able to deliver their central promise -- namely, economic growth." [Ha-Joon Chang, Kicking Away the Ladder, p. 128]
Then there is the issue of what the magazine fails to mention. For a start, it excludes the ex-Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe. This is understandable for obvious reasons. If these nations were included, then their rising inequality and poverty since they became part of the global market would have to be mentioned and this would make its defence of neo-liberalism much harder (as would the fact life expectancies fell to Third World levels). As economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, the neo-liberal reforms brought the ex-Stalinist countries "unprecedented poverty." In 1989, only 2% of Russians lived in poverty, by the late 1998 that number had soared to 23.8%, using the $2 a day standard. More than 40% had less that $4 a day. Other post-Stalinist countries "have seen comparable, if not worse, increases in poverty." Overall, these reform package has "entailed one of the largest increases in poverty in history." [Globalization and its Discontents, p. 6, p. 153 and p. 182]
The GDP in the former Stalinist states fell between 20% and 40% in the decade after 1989, an economic contraction which can only be compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Of the 19 ex-Stalinist economies, only Poland's GDP exceeded that of 1989, the year transition began. In only 5 was GDP per capita more than 80% of the 1989 level. [Chang, Op. Cit., p. 129] Only a small minority saw their real wages rise; the vast majority experienced a spectacular fall in living standards. It took the Czech Republic, for example eight years until average real wages reached their 1989 level. Unemployment became widespread. In 2005, Slovakia had 27% of its under-25s are unemployed while in Poland 39% of under-25s were without a job (the highest figure in Europe) and 17% of the population were below the poverty line.
Overall, between 1985 and 2000, growth in GDP per capita was negative in 17 transition countries while the "incidence of poverty increased in most countries of Latin America, the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa during the 1980s and the 1990s. Much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia experiences a sharp rise in poverty during the 1990s." East, Southwest and South Asia did experience a steady decline in the incidence of poverty, but "most of this improvement is accounted for by changes in just two countries, with large populations, China and India." [Deepak Nayyar, Op. Cit., p. 154, pp. 154-5 and p. 155] Hardly an inspiring result.
And what of the actual economic regimes in China and India? One left-wing economist notes that "in the early stages of China's high growth period there was an expansion of state employment, including in the dynamic and crucial manufacturing sector . . . in its most recent phase, private capital accumulation dominates the growth process in China, although the state still strongly influences the pattern of investment through its control of the credit system and its policy of creating 'national champions' in sectors such as cars and steel." Not to mention, of course, its role in the labour market. There is no freedom to organise -- the country is, in effect, one big workplace and the state bosses do not tolerate freedom of association, assembly and speech any more than any other company. Unsurprisingly, labour discipline "is very harsh" and workers may find it difficult to change jobs and migrate to urban areas. [Andrew Glyn, Op. Cit., p. 87 and p. 94]
As one expert notes, in the case of both India and China "the main trade reforms took place after the onset of high growth. Moreover, these countries' trade restrictions remain among the highest in the world." In India, its "trend growth rate increased substantially in the early 1980s" while "serious trade reform did not start until 1991-93 . . . tariffs were actually higher in the rising growth period of the 1980s than in the low-growth 1970s." Thus claims of "the beneficial effects of trade liberalisation on poverty have to be seen as statements based on faith rather than evidence." [Dani Rodrik, Comments on 'Trade, Growth, and Poverty by D. Dollar and A. Kraay] As Chomsky notes, there is a deliberate policy which "muddles export orientation with neo-liberalism, so that if a billion Chinese experience high growth under export-orientated policies that radically violate neo-liberal principles, the increase in average global growth rates can be hailed as a triumph of the principles that are violated." [Op. Cit., p. 217] It should also be mentioned that both these states avoided the 1980s debt crisis by avoiding Western banks in the 1970s. They also maintain capital controls, so that hot money cannot flow freely in and out, and have large state sectors.
At least the Economist itself notes that "[n]either country is an exemplar of free market capitalism -- far from it." That says it all about the defenders of free market capitalism; they defend their ideas by pointing to countries which do not apply them!
It should be stressed that this praise for the "free market" using regimes which hardly meet the criteria has a long history. This has included both Japan and the East Asian Tigers in the 1970s and 1980s as "the spectacular growth of these countries . . . is fundamentally due to activist industrial, trade and technology policies (ITT) by the state." [Chang, Op. Cit., p. 49] As an expert on these economies notes, "the legend is not fully consistent with the way the governments have in practice behaved," namely adopting "over a long period of time a much more aggressive, dirigistic set of industrial policies than free-trading principles would justify." In fact, their "governments were deeply committed to increasing and sustaining high levels of investment and to steering its composition." He bemoans the "assumption that only those features of economic policy consistent with neoclassical principles could have contributed to good economic performance" and so explanations for such "accordingly ignore non-neoclassical features." [Robert Wade, "What can Economics Learn from East Asian Success?", pp. 68-79, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 505, pp. 70-1, p. 72 and p. 68]
This analysis was proved right when, ironically, the praise turned to attack when the 1997 crisis erupted and all the features previously ignored or denied where brought onto the central stage to explain the slump ("When their bubbles imploded, the same countries were denounced by the policy elites for something called 'crony capitalism' -- a year earlier, the term had been 'business-friendly environment.'" [Jeff Faux and Larry Mishel, Op. Cit., p. 94]). As Robert Wade noted, "the perception shifted from 'miracle Asia' to 'Asian crony state capitalism' almost over night," a term used "to convey a told-you-so moral about the dangers of government intervention." ["From 'miracle' to 'cronyism': explaining the Great Asian Slump", pp. 673-706, Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 22, No. 6, p. 699 and p. 700] Ironically, Japan's 1990s woes and the 1997 crisis both occurred after those states liberalised their economies (as recommended by, of course, economists and the IMF). Unsurprisingly, we discover Milton Friedman pointing (in 2002!) to the "dramatic success of the market-orientated policies of the East Asian tigers" as if they gave support to his ideological position of laissez-faire capitalism. [Op. Cit., p. ix]
Then there is the issue of "economic liberty" as such. Milton Friedman stated in 2002 that the "limited increase in economic freedom has changed the face of China, strikingly confirming our faith in the power of free markets." [Op. Cit., pp. viii-ix] Faith is the right word, as only the faithful could fair to note that there is no free market in China as it does not have basic freedoms for labour. How much "economic freedom" is there for workers under a brutal dictatorship? How can it be claimed, with a straight face, that there is an "increase in economic freedom" in such regimes? It seems, therefore, that for right-wing economists that their "faith" in "free markets" is "confirmed" by an authoritarian system that obviously and constantly violates the freedom of labour. But then again, workers have never been considered highly by the profession. What has always counted is the freedom of the boss and, consequently, a regime that secures that is always praised (and we discuss in section C.11, Friedman has a track record in this).
The selectively of the supporters of "free market" capitalists is truly staggering. Take, as an example, globalisation and anti-globalisation protests. Supports of the trade deals accused critics as being against "free trade" and, by implication, against freedom. Yet the deals they supported were based on accepting the current labour standards across the world. This means accepting the labour conditions of states, usually dictatorships, which habitually deny a free market (even a capitalist one) to its workers -- all in the name of the free market! Which makes the "free market" supporters of neo-liberalism utter hypocrites. They are happy to accept a "free market" in which the denial of freedom of workers to form unions is an intrinsic part. It also suggests that the much attacked critics of "trade" deals who demand that basic standards of freedom for workers be incorporated into them are those who truly support "free trade" and the "free market." Those who advocate unrestricted trade with dictatorial regimes (where workers are thrown in prison, at best, or assassinated, at worse, if they organise or talk about unions and protests) are engaging in the worse form of doublethink when they appropriate the term "freedom" for their position.
It is easy to understand why supporters of capitalism do so. In such regimes, capital is free and the many abuses of freedom are directed towards the working class. These suppress wages and the resulting competition can be used to undermine workers wages, conditions and freedoms back home. This is why neo-liberals and such like agree to a range of global policies that give substantial freedoms to capitalists to operate unhindered around the world while, at the same time, fiercely resistant to any demands that the freedom of workers be given equal concern (this why Chomsky talks about the "international global justice movement, ludicrously called 'anti-globalisation' because they favour globalisation that privileges the interests of people, not investors and financial institutions." [Op. Cit., p. 259]). In other words, free markets are fine for capitalists, but not for workers. And if anyone disagrees, they turn round and accuse their critics of being opposed to "freedom"! As such, anti-globalisation protesters are right. People in such regimes are not free and it is meaningless to talk of the benefits of "free markets" when a free market in labour does not exist. It does, of course, show how genuine the defenders of capitalism are about freedom.
So has global poverty fallen since the rise of neo-liberalism in 1970s? Perhaps it has, but only if you apply the World Bank measure (i.e. a living standard of less than a dollar a day). If that is done then the number of individuals in dire poverty is (probably) falling (although Joseph Stiglitz states that "the actual number of people living in poverty . . . actually increased by almost 100 million" in the 1990s and he argues that globalisation as practised "has not succeeded in reducing poverty." [Op. Cit., p. 5 and p. 6]). However, the vast bulk of those who have risen out of dire poverty are in China and India, that is in the two countries which do not follow the neo-liberal dogma. In those that did follow the recommendations of neo-liberalism, in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, poverty and growth rates are much worse. Chang states the obvious:
"So we have an apparent 'paradox' here -- at least if you are a Neo-Liberal economist. All countries, but especially developing countries, grew much faster when they used 'bad' policies during the 1960-1980 period than when they used 'good' ones during the following two decades . . . Now, the interesting thing is that these 'bad; policies are basically those that the NDCs [Now Developed Countries] had pursued when they were developing countries themselves. Given this, we can only conclude that, in recommending the allegedly 'good' policies, the NDCs are in effect 'kicking away the ladder' by which they have climbed to the top." [Op. Cit., p. 129]
Hardly a glowing recommendation for the prescriptions favoured by the Economist and other supporters of free market capitalism. Nor very convincing support for solving the problems of neo-liberalism with yet more globalisation (of the same, neo-liberal, kind). One thing is true, though. The accepted wisdom of the age if that the road to prosperity and international acceptance is "economic liberalisation" or some of euphemism for opening economies to foreign investment. What this really means is that authoritarian regimes that allow their subjects to be exploited by international capital rather than state bureaucracies will find apologists among those who profit from such transactions or get paid by them. That this involves violation of the freedom of working class people and the labour "market" does not seem to bother them for, they stress, in long term material benefits this will create outweigh such restrictions on the eternal and sacred laws of economics. That "freedom" is used to justify this just shows how debased that concept has become under capitalism and within capitalist ideology.
As we discussed in the last section, the post-1980 era of neo-liberal globalisation and "free(r) markets" has not been as beneficial to the developing world as the defenders of neo-liberalism suggest. In fact, these economies have done worse under neo-liberalism than they did under state-aided forms of development between 1950 and 1980. The only exceptions post-1980 have been those states which have rejected the dogmas of neo-liberalism and used the state to foster economic development rather than rely on "free trade."
It would, of course, be churlish to note that this is a common feature of capitalist development. Industrialisation has always been associated with violations of the sacred laws of economics and freedom for workers. In fact, the central conceit of neo-liberalism is that it ignores the evidence of history but this is unsurprising (as noted in section C.1.2, economics has a distinct bias against empirical evidence). This applies to the notion of free trade as well as industrialisation, both of which show the economists lack of concern with reality.
Most economists are firm supporters of free trade, arguing that it benefits all countries who apply it. The reason why was first explained by David Ricardo, one of the founding fathers of the discipline. Using the example of England and Portugal and wine and cloth, he argued that international trade would benefit both countries even if one country (Portugal) produced both goods more cheaply than the other because it was relative costs which counted. This theory, called comparative advantage, meant that it would be mutually beneficial for both countries to specialise in the goods they had a relative advantage in and trade. So while it is cheaper to produce cloth in Portugal than England, it is cheaper still for Portugal to produce excess wine, and trade that for English cloth. Conversely, England benefits from this trade because its cost for producing cloth has not changed but it can now get wine at closer to the cost of cloth. By each country specialising in producing one good, the sum total of goods internationally increases and, consequently, everyone is better off when these goods are traded. [The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, pp. 81-3]
This argument is still considered as the bed-rock of the economics of international trade and is used to refute arguments in favour of policies like protectionism. Strangely, though, economists have rarely compared the outcome of these policies. Perhaps because as Chomsky notes, "if you want to know how well those theorems actually work, just compare Portugal and England after a hundred years of development." [Understanding Power, p. 254] One economist who did was the German Friedrich List who, in 1837, urged people "to turn his attention to Portugal and to England and to compare the economies of these two countries. I am sure that he can have no doubts as to which country is prosperous and which has lost its economic independence, is dead from an intellectual, commercial and industrial point of view, and is decadent, poverty stricken and weak." [The Natural System of Political Economy, pp. 169-70] Unsurprisingly, List used this example to bolster his case for protectionism. Little has changed. Allan Engler notes that "[a]fter nearly 200 years, comparative advantage had given Portugal no noticeable advantage." While the UK became the leading industrial power, Portugal remained a poor agricultural economy: "Britain's manufacturing industries were the most efficient in the world, Portugal had little choice but to be an exporter of agricultural products and raw materials." In 1988, Portugal's per capita GDP was less than one third that of the UK. When "Purchasing power parity" is factored in, Portugal's per capita GDP was barely more than half of the UK. [Apostles of Greed, p. 132]
Nor should we forget that free trade takes the economic agent as the country. Unlike an individual, a nation is divided by classes and marked by inequalities of wealth, power and influence. Thus while free trade may increase the sum-total of wealth in a specific country, it does not guarantee that its benefits or losses will be distributed equally between social classes, never mind individuals. Thus capitalists may favour free trade at specific times because it weakens the bargaining power of labour, so allowing them to reap more income at the workers' expense (as producers and consumers). Taking the example of the so-called "free trade" agreements of the 1990s, there was no reason to believe that benefits of such trade may accrue to all within a given state nor that the costs will be afflicted on all classes. Subsequent developments confirmed such a perspective, with the working class suffering the costs of corporate-led "globalisation" while the ruling class gained the benefits. Not that such developments bothered most economists too much, of course. Equally, while the total amount of goods may be increased by countries pursuing their comparative advantage it does not automatically follow that trade between them will distribute the benefits equally either between the countries or within them. As with exchange between classes, trade between countries is subject to economic power and so free trade can easily lead to the enrichment of one at the expense of the other. This means that the economically powerful will tend to support free trade as they will reap more from it.
Therefore the argument for free trade cannot be abstracted from its impact or the interests it serves, as Joan Robinson pointed out:
"When Ricardo set out the case against protection he was supporting British economic interests. Free trade ruined Portuguese industry. Free trade for others is in the interests of the strongest competitor in world markets, and a sufficiently strong competitor has no need for protection at home. Free trade doctrine, in practice, is a more subtle form of Mercantilism. When Britain was the workshop of the world, universal free trade suited her interests. When (with the aid of protection) rival industries developed in Germany and the United States, she was still able to preserve free trade for her own exports in the Empire." [Collected Economic Papers, vol. 5, p. 28]
This echoes the analysis of List who that the British advocacy of free trade was primarily political in nature and not to mention hypocritical. Its political aim was to destroy potential competitors by flooding their markets with goods, so ruining their industrial base and making them exporters of raw materials for British industry rather than producers of finished goods. He argued that a "study of the true consequences" of free trade "provide the key to England's commercial policy from that day to this. The English have always been cosmopolitans and philanthropists in theory but always monopolists in practice." [Op. Cit., p. 167] Moreover, such a position was hypocritical because Britain industrialised by means of state intervention and now sought to deny that option to other nations.
List advocated that the state should protect infant industries until such time as they could survive international competition. Once industrialised, the state could then withdraw. He did not deny that free trade may benefit agricultural exporters, but only at the expense of industrial development and spill-over benefits it generates for the economy as a whole. In other words, free trade harmed the less-developed nation in terms of its economic prosperity and independence in the long run. Protectionism allowed the development of local industrial capitalism while free trade bolstered the fortunes of foreign capitalist nations (a Hobson's choice, really, from an anarchist perspective). This was the situation with British capitalism, as "Britain had very high tariffs on manufacturing products as late as the 1820s, some two generations after the start of its Industrial Revolution . . . Measures other than tariff protection were also deployed" (such as banning imports from competitors). [Chang, Op. Cit., p. 22] Needless to say, trade unions were illegal during this period of industrialisation and troops were regularly deployed to crush strikes, riots and rebellions. Economist Thomas Balogh confirms this analysis:
"The fact is that Britain's economic growth forged ahead of its European competitors while it was exploiting an effective monopoly of the steam engine, from 1780 to 1840. Through most of that period the nation had a high and complicated tariff . . ., massive public investment and spending . . . and an extensive public welfare system with wage supplements and welfare allowances indexed to basic costs of living . . .
"There followed a long period, from about 1840 to 1931, when Britain did indeed have the freest trade and relatively speaking the cheapest government and (until 1914) the smallest public sector among the industrially developing nations, Yet, for competitiveness, that century saw the relative decline of the country. Numerous competing countries, led by the US and Germany, emerged and overtook and passed Britain in output and income per head. Every one of them had protective tariffs, and a bigger (relative) public sector than the British." [Op. Cit., p. 180]
Significantly, and highly embarrassingly for neo-classical economists, the one nation which embraced free trade ideology most, namely the UK in the latter half of the 19th century, suffered economic decline in comparison to its competitors who embraced protectionist and other statist economic policies. It would be churlish to note that this is the exact opposite of what the theory predicts.
In historical terms, List has been proven correct numerous times. If the arguments for free trade were correct, then the United States and Germany (plus Japan, South Korea, etc., more recently), would be economic backwaters while Portugal would have flourished. The opposite happened. By the 1900s, Britain was overtaken economically by America and Germany, both of whom industrialised by means of protectionism and other forms of state intervention. As such, we should not forget that Adam Smith confidently predicted that protectionism in America would "would retard instead of accelerating the further increase in the value of their annual progress, and would obstruct instead of promoting the progress of their country towards real wealth and greatness." He considered it best that capital be "employed in agriculture" rather than manufacturing. [The Wealth of Nations, p. 328 and p. 327]). The historical record hardly supports Smith's predictions as "throughout the nineteenth century and up to the 1920s, the USA was the fastest growing economy in the world, despite being the most protectionist during almost all of this period . . . Most interestingly, the two best 20-year GDP per capita growth performances during the 1830-1910 period were 1870-1890 (2.1 per cent) and 1890-1910 (two per cent) -- both period of particularly high protectionism. It is hard to believe that this association between the degree of protectionism and overall growth is purely coincidental." [Op. Cit., p. 30]
As with the UK, America "remained the most ardent practitioner of infant industry protection until the First World War, and even until the Second." Like UK, the state played its role in repressing labour, for while unions were usually not technically illegal, they were subject to anti-trust laws (at state and then federal level) as well as force during strikes from troops and private police forces. It was "only after the Second World War that the USA -- with its industrial supremacy unchallenged - finally liberalised it trade and started championing the cause of free trade." [Chang, Op. Cit., p. 28 and p. 29] Unsurprisingly, faced with growing international competition it practised protectionism and state aid while keeping the rhetoric of free trade to ensure that any potential competitor has its industries ruined by being forced to follow policies the US never applied in the same situation. Chomsky summarises:
"So take a look at one of the things you don't say if you're an economist within one of the ideological institutions, although surely every economist has to know it. Take the fact that there is not a single case on record in history of any country that has developed successfully through adherence to 'free market' principles: none." [Op. Cit., p. 255]
Not that this has disabused most economists from repeating Ricardo's theory as if it told the full story of international trade or has been empirically verified. As Chang puts it, his approach of studying the actual history of specific countries and generalising conclusions "is concrete and inductive" and "contrasts strongly with the currently dominant Neoclassical approach based on abstract and deductive methods." This has meant that "contemporary discussion on economic development policy-making has been peculiarly ahistoric." [Op. Cit., p. 6] This is unsurprising, as there is a distinct tendency within mainstream economics not to check to see if whether the theory conforms to reality. It is as if we know that capitalist economics is true, so why bother to consider the evidence. So no matter how implausible a given theory is, capitalist economics simply asks us to take them on trust. Perhaps this is because they are nothing more than logical deductions from various assumptions and comparing them to reality would expose not only the bankruptcy of the theory but also the bogus claims that economics relates to reality or is a science?
That these theories survive at all is due to their utility to vested interests and, of course, their slightly complicated logical beauty. It should be noted, in passing, that the free trade argument is based on reducing international competition. It recommends that different countries specialise in different industries. That this would make sense for, say, a country with industry (marked by increasing returns to scale and significant spill-over effects into other areas of the economy) rather than one based on agriculture (marked by decreasing returns to scale) goes without saying. That the policy would turn the world into a provider of raw materials and markets rather than a source of competitors for the most advanced nation is just one of these co-incidences capitalist economics suffers from.
As such, it is not a coincidence that both the classic "free trade" and current neo-liberal position does allow a nation to secure its dominance in the market by forcing the ruling elites in other nations to subscribe to rules which hinder their freedom to develop in their own way. As we discuss in section D.5, the rise of neo-liberalism can be viewed as the latest in a long series of imperialist agendas designed to secure benefits of trade to the West as well as reducing the number of rivals on the international market. As Chang notes, Britain's move to free trade after 1846 "was based on its then unchallenged economic superiority and was intricately linked with its imperial policy." The stated aim was to halt the move to industrialisation in Europe by promoting agricultural markets. Outside of the West, "most of the rest of the world was forced to practice free trade through colonialism and . . . unequal treaties." These days, this policy is implemented via international organisations which impose Western-dominated rules. As Chang notes, the "developed countries did not get where they are now through policies and the institutions that they recommend to developing countries today. Most of them actively used 'bad' trade and industrial policies . . . practices that these days are frowned upon, if not actively banned, by the WTO." [Op. Cit., p. 16, p. 23, p. 16 and p. 2]
In other words, the developed countries are making it difficult for the developing countries to use policies and institutions which they themselves so successfully used previously. This, as with the "free trade" arguments of the 19th century, is simply a means of controlling economic development in other countries to reduce the number of potential competitors and to secure markets in other countries. In addition, we must also stress that the threat of capital flight within western countries also raises competitive pressures for labour and so has the added benefit of helping tame rebellious workers in the imperialist nations themselves. These factors help explain the continued support for free trade theory in economic circles in spite of the lack of empirical evidence in its favour. But then again, given that most economists cannot understand how one class exploits another by means of exchange within a national market due to its economic power, it would be surprising if they could see it within international markets.
To generalise, it appears that under capitalism there are two main options for a country. Either it submits itself to the dictates of global finance, embracing neo-liberal reforms and seeing its growth fall and inequality rise or (like every other successful industrialiser) it violates the eternal laws of economics by using the state to protect and govern its home market and see growth rise along with inequality. As Chang notes, looking at the historical record a "consistent pattern emerges, in which all the catching-up economies use activist industrial, trade and technology (ITT) policies . . . to promote economic development." He stresses "it was the UK and the USA, the supposed homes of free trade policy, which used tariff protection most aggressively." The former "implemented the kinds of ITT policies that became famous for their use in . . . Japan, Korea and Taiwan." [Op. Cit., pp. 125-6, p. 59 and pp. 60-1] In addition, another aspect of this process involves repressing the working class so that we pay the costs for industrialising. Unions were illegal when Britain used its ITT policies while the "labour market in Taiwan and Korea, for example, has been about as close to a free market as it is possible to get, due in part to government repression of unions." ["What can Economics Learn from East Asian Success?", Op. Cit., p. 70] Given that unions are anathema to neo-classical and Austrian economics, it is understandable why their repression should be considered relatively unproblematic (in fact, according to economic ideology repressing unions can be considered to be in the interests of the working class as, it is claimed, unions harm non-unionised workers -- who knew that bosses and their states were such philanthropists?).
Neither option has much to recommend it from an anarchist perspective. As such, our stating of facts associated with the history of "actually existing" capitalism should not be construed to imply that anarchists support state-run development. Far from it. We are simply noting that the conclusion of history seems to be that countries industrialise and grow faster when the state governs the market in significant ways while, at the same time, repressing the labour movement. This is unsurprising, for as we discuss in section D.1, this process of state intervention is part and parcel of capitalism and, as noted in section F.8, has always been a feature of its rise in the first place (to use Marx's expression, a process of "primitive accumulation" has always been required to create capitalism). This does not mean, just to state the obvious, that anarchists support protectionism against "free trade." In a class system, the former will tend to benefit local capitalists while the latter will benefit foreign ones. Then there is the social context. In a predominantly rural economy, protectionism is a key way to create capitalism. For example, this was the case in 19th century America and it should be noted that the Southern slave states were opposed to protectionism, as where the individualist anarchists. In other words, protectionism was a capitalist measure which pre-capitalists and anti-capitalists opposed as against their interests. Conversely, in a developed capitalist economy "free trade" (usually very selectively applied) can be a useful way to undermine workers wages and working conditions as well as foreign capitalist competitors (it may also change agriculture itself in developing countries, displacing small peasant farmers from the land and promoting capitalist agriculture, i.e. one based on large estates and wage labour).
For the anarchist, while it is true that in the long run option two does raise the standard of living faster than option one, it should always be remembered that we are talking about a class system and so the costs and benefits will be determined by those in power, not the general population. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that people in developing countries actually want a Western lifestyle (although the elites who run those countries certainly do, as can be seen from the policies they are imposing). As Bookchin once noted, "[a]s Westerners, 'we' tend to assume out of hand that 'they' want or need the same kind of technologies and commodities that capitalism produced in America and Europe . . . With the removal of imperialism's mailed fist, a new perspective could open for the Third World." [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, pp. 156-7]
Suffice to say, there are other means to achieve development (assuming that is desired) based on working class control of industry. Given this, the only genuine solution for developing countries would be to get rid of their class systems and create a society where working people take control of their own fates, i.e. anarchism. Hence we find Proudhon, for example, stating he "oppose[d] the free traders because they favour interest, while they demand the abolition of tariffs." He advocated the opposite, supporting free trade "as a consequence of the abolition of interest" (i.e. capitalism). Thus the issue of free trade cannot be separated from the kind of society practising it nor from the creation of a free society. Abolishing capitalism in one country, he argued, would lead to other nations reforming themselves, which would "emancipate their lower classes; in a word, to bring about revolution. Free trade would then become equal exchange." [The General Idea of the Revolution, pp. 235-8] Unless that happens, then no matter whether protectionism or free trade is applied, working class people will suffer its costs and will have to fight for any benefits it may bring.
One defence of capitalism is that, appearances and popular opinion to the contrary, it is benefits working class people more than the ruling class.
This argument can be found in right-liberal economist Milton Friedman's defence of capitalism in which he addresses the claim that "the extension and development of capitalism has meant increased inequality." Not so, he states. "Among the Western countries alone," he argues, "inequality appears to be less, in any meaningful sense, the more highly capitalist the country is . . . With respect to changes over time, the economic progress achieved in the capitalist countries has been accompanied by a drastic diminution in inequality." In fact, "a free society [i.e. capitalism] in fact tends towards greater material equality than any other yet tried." Thus, according to Friedman, a "striking fact, contrary to popular conception, is that capitalism leads to less inequality than alternative systems of organisation and that the development of capitalism has greatly lessened the extent of inequality. Comparisons over space and time alike confirm this." [Capitalism and Freedom, p. 168, pp. 169-70, p. 195 and p. 169]
Friedman makes other claims to the superiority of capitalism. Thus he states that not only do non-capitalist societies "tend to have wider inequality than capitalist, even as measured by annual income" in such systems inequality "tends to be permanent, whereas capitalism undermines status and introduces social mobility." Like most right-wingers, he stresses the importance of social mobility and argues that a society with little change in position "would be the more unequal society." Finally, he states that "[o]ne of the most striking facts which run counter to people's expectations has to do with the source of income. The more capitalistic a country is, the smaller the fraction of income for the use of what is generally regarded as capital, and the larger the fraction paid for human services." [Op. Cit., pp. 171-2, p. 171 and pp. 168-9]
Friedman, as he regularly did, failed to present any evidence to support his claims or any of his "striking fact[s]" so it is hard to evaluate the truthfulness of any of this specific assertions. One possible way of doing so would be to consider the actual performance of specific countries before and after 1980. That year is significant as this marked the assumption of office of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US, both of whom were heavily influenced by Friedman and other supporters of "free market" capitalism. If his claims were true, then we would expect decreases in equality, social mobility and the share of "human services" before 1980 (the period of social Keynesian policies) and increases in all three after. Sadly for Friedman (and us!), the facts are counter to his assertions -- equality, mobility and share of income for "human services" all decreased post-1980.
As we showed in section B.7, inequality rose and social mobility fell since 1980 in the USA and the UK (social democratic nations have a better record on both). As far as the share of income goes, that too has failed to support his assertions. Even in 1962, the facts did not support his assertion as regards the USA. According to figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce the share of labour in 1929 was 58.2% and this rose to 69.5% by 1959. Even looking at just private employees, this was a rise from 52.5% to 58% (income for government employees, including the military went from 5.7% to 12.2%). In addition, "proprietor's income" (which represents income to the owner of a business which combines work effort and ownership, for example a farmer or some other self-employed worker) fell, with farm income going from 6.8% to 3.0%, while other such income dropped from 10.1% to 8.7%. [Walter S. Measday, "Labor's Share in the National Income," The Quarterly Review of Economics & Business, Vol. 2, No. 3, August 1962] Unless Friedman would argue that 1929 America was more statist than 1959, it seems that his assertion was false even when it was first made. How did his comment fare after he made it? Looking at the period after 1959 there was continuing increase in labour share in the national income, peaking in the 1970s before steadily dropping over the following decades (it dropped to below 1948 levels in 1983 and stayed there). [Alan B. Krueger, "Measuring Labor's Share", The American Economic Review, vol. 89, No.2, May 1999] Since then the downward trend has continued.
It would be churlish to note that the 1970s saw the rise of influence of Friedman's ideas in both countries and that they were applied in the early 1980s.
There are problems with using labour share. For example it moves with the business cycle (rising in recessions and falling in booms). In addition, there can be other forms of labour compensation as well as wages. Looking at total compensation to labour, this amounts to around 70% of total US income between 1950 and 2000 (although this, too, peaked in the 1970s before falling [Krueger, Op. Cit.]). However, this "labour" income can be problematic. For example, employer provided health care is considered as non-wage compensation so it is possible for rising health care costs to be reflected in rising labour compensation yet this hardly amounts to a rising labour share as the net gain would be zero. Then there is the question of government employees and welfare benefits which, of course, are considered labour income. Unfortunately, Friedman provides no clue as to which statistics he is referring to, so we do not know whether to include total compensation or not in evaluating his claims.
One group of economists have taken the issue of government transfers into account. Since 1979, there has been an "increased share of capital income (such as rent, dividends, interest payments, and capital gains) and a corresponding smaller share earned as wages and salaries." Most families receive little or no capital income, but it is "a very important source of income to the top 1% and especially the top 0.1% (who receive more than a third of all capital income)." In 1959, total labour income was 73.5% while capital income was 13.3% of market-based income (personal income less government transfers). By 1979, these were 75.8% and 15.1%, respectively. The increases for both are due to a fall in "proprietor's income" from 13.3% to 9.1%. By 2000, capital income had risen to 19.1% while labour's share had fallen to 71.8% (proprietor's income remained the same). This "shift away from labour income and toward capital income is unique in the post-war period and is partly responsible for the ongoing growth of inequality since 1979." [Lawrence Mishel, Jered Bernstein, and Sylvia Allegretto, The State of Working America 2006/7, p. 76 and p. 79]
It should be noted that Friedman repeated the standard economist (and right-wing) argument that a better way to increase wages than unions or struggle is to make workers more productive. That lifts everyone's standard of living. At least it used to. Between 1945 and 1980, worker wages did, indeed, track productivity increases. This was also the high period of union density in America. After 1980, that link was broken. By a strange co-incidence, this was the Friedman-inspired Reagan effectively legalised and encouraged union busting. Since then, productivity increases are going almost entirely to the top tenth of the population, while median incomes have stagnated. Without unions and robust worker bargaining power, productivity increases have not been doing much for workers. Not that people like Friedman actually mentioned that rather significant fact.
Then there is the issue of "human services" itself. This is not the same as labour income at all as it includes, for example, management pay. As we indicated in section C.3, this "labour" income is better thought of as capital income as that specific labour is rooted in the control of capital. That this is the case can be seen by the numerous defences of exploding CEO pay by right-wing think tanks, journals and economists as well as the lack of concern about the inflationary nature of such massive "pay" rises (particularly when contrasted to the response over very slight increases in workers' pay). This means that "labour" income could remain constant while CEO salaries explode and worker wages stagnant or even fall, as is the case in both the US (and UK) since 1980. In such circumstances, looking at "human services" becomes misleading as returns to capital are listed as "labour" simply because they are in the form of bosses pay. Equally, CEO perks and bonuses would be included as "labour" non-wage compensation.
To see what this means we must use an example. Take a country with 100 people with a combined income of £10,000. The average income would be £100 each. Taking a labour/capital split of 70/30, we get an income of labour of £7000 and an income to capital of £3000. Assuming that 5% of the population own the capital stock, that is an average income of £600 each while labour gets an average of £73.68. However, 10% of the population are managers and assuming another 70/30 split between management and worker income this means that management gets £2100 in total (an average of £210) while workers get £4900 (an average of £57.65). This means that the owners of capital get 6 times the national average income, managers just over twice that amount and workers just over half the average. In other words, a national statistic of 70% labour income hides the reality that workers, who make up 85% of the population, actually get less than half the income (49%). Capital income, although less, is distributed to fewer people and so causes massive inequality (15% of the population get an average income of £340, nearly 6 times more than the average for the remaining 85% while the upper 5% get over 10 times). If the share of management in labour income rises to 35%, then workers wages fall and inequality rises while labour income remains constant at 70% (management's average income rises to £363.33 while workers' falls to £53.53). It should be stressed this example underestimates inequality in capitalist economies, particularly ones which had the misfortunate to apply Friedman's ideas.
Looking further a field, this pattern has been repeated everywhere "free(r) market" capitalism has been imposed. In Chile equality and labour's share increased during the 1960s and early 1970s, only for both to plummet under Pinochet's Friedman-inspired neo-liberal regime (see section C.11 for the grim details of "economic liberty" there). In Thatcher's Britain, inequality rose while labour share and social mobility fell. Between 1978 and 1990, the share of wages and salaries in household income in the UK fell from 65.8% to 57.4%. The share for capital income (rent, interest and dividends) more than doubled (from 4.9% to 10.0%).Unsurprisingly, this rise "directly contributed to the increase in overall inequality" (48% of all investment income went to the richest tenth of households). [John Hill, Inequality and the State, p. 88]
Looking at how increases in income and wealth were distributed, we find that gains since 1979 went predominantly to the rich. Before that, the income of all sections of society grew at roughly the same level between 1961 and 1979. Most of the increase was near the mean, the one exception was the lowest tenth whose incomes rose significantly higher than the rest). This meant that "over the 1960s and 1970s as a whole all income groups benefited from rising incomes, the lowest rising fastest." After 1978 "the pattern broke down" and incomes for the highest tenth rose by 60-68 percent while at the medium it grew by about 30% between 1979 and 1994/5. The lower down the income distribution, the lower the growth (in fact, after housing costs the income of bottom 10% was 8% lower in 1994/5 than in 1979). As in America during the same period a fence turned into stairs as the nearer to the bottom the slower income grew, the nearer the top the faster income grew (i.e. roughly equal growth turned into growth which increased as income increased -- see section B.7.1). Between 1979 and 1990/91, the bottom 70% saw their income share fall. During the Major years, from 1992 to 1997, inequality stopped growing simply because hardly anyone's income grew. Over all, between 1979 and 2002/3, the share of all incomes received by the bottom half fell from 22% to 37%. This is more than the whole of the bottom half combined. The bottom 10% saw their share of income fall from 4.3% to 3% (after housing costs, this was 4.0% to 2.0%). Only the top tenth saw their income increase (from 20.6% to 28%). About 40% of the total increase in real net incomes went to the top tenth between 1979 and 2002-3. 17% of the increase in after-tax incomes went to the top 1%, about 13% went to the top 0.5% ("Wealth is much more unequally distributed than incomes."). [John Hills, Op. Cit., p. 20, p. 21, p. 23 and p. 37]
Unsurprisingly, income inequality widened considerably (which more than reversed all the moves towards equality of income that had taken place since 1945) and Britain went from being one of the more equal countries in the industrialised countries to being one of the most unequal. The numbers below half the median income rose. In the 1960s, this was roughly 10%, before falling to 6% in 1977. It then "the rose sharply" and peaked at 21% in 1991/92 before stabilising at 18-19%. After housing costs, this meant a rise from 7% to 25% below half the average income, falling to 23%. It should be noted that the pre-Thatcher period gives "the lie to the notion that 'relative' poverty can never be reduced." In summary, by the early 1990s "relative poverty was twice the level it had been in the 1960s, and three times what it had been in the late 1970s." It seems needless to add that social mobility fell. [John Hills, Op. Cit., p. 48, p. 263 and pp. 120-1]
The same can be said of Eastern Europe. This is particularly significant, for if Friedman's assertions were right then we would expect that the end of Stalinism in Eastern Europe would have seen a decrease in inequality. As in Chile, Britain, New Zealand and America, the opposite occurred -- inequality exploded. By the start of the 21st century Eastern Europe was challenging neo-liberal Britain at the top of the European income inequality tables.
The historical record does not give much support to claims that free(r) market capitalism is best for working class people. Real wage growth rose to around 5% per year in the early 1970s, before falling substantially to under 2% from the 1980s onwards for 13 OECD countries. In fact, "real wage have growth very slowly in OECD countries since 1979, an extraordinary turn-round from the 3-5% growth rates of the 1960s." In the US, the median wage was actually less in 2003 than in 1979. Average wages actually declined until 1995, then they increased somewhat so that the average growth rate for the 1990s was less than 0.5% a year. Europe and Japan have done only a little better, with growth of around 1% per year. This is unsurprising, given the rise in returns to capital after 1979 for "real wages do not automatically grow as fast as labour productivity. The general increase in the share of profits . . pulls real wage growth behind productivity growth." Within the labour force, inequality has risen. Wage differentials "are considerably higher in the UK/US group than in Europe" and have grown faster. Real wages for the top 10% grew by 27.2% between 1979 and 2003, compared to 10.2% in the middle (real wages for the bottom 10% did not grow). In Europe, "real wages grew at the bottom at a similar rate to the average." The top 1% of wage-earners in the USA doubled their total wage share between 1979 and 1998 from 6.2% to 10.9%, whilst the top 0.1% nearly tripled their share to 4.1%. Almost all of the increase in the top 10% went to the top 5%, and about two-thirds to the top 1%. In France, the share of the top 1% remained the same. Overall, "labour's position tended to be more eroded in the more free market economies like the USA and UK than in European economies where social protection [including trade unionism] was already stronger." [Andrew Glyn, Op. Cit., p. 6 p. 116, p. 117, p. 118 and p. 127]
Looking at inequality and poverty, the conclusion is that liberalisation of markets "tend to bring greater inequality." In fact, the rise in the UK was strongest in the 1980s, the Thatcher period while New Zealand "saw as big an increase in inequality as the UK." The USA "maintained its position as the most unequal country with inequality increasing in both decades." In summary, "the increase in inequality has been noticeably greater in the inegalitarian liberal economies than in Northern Europe." Moreover, "liberal countries have larger proportions of their populations in poverty" than European ones. Unsurprisingly, New Zealand and the UK (both poster-childs for neo-liberalism) "had the biggest increases in numbers in poverty between the mid-1980s and 2000." In the mid-1990s, 20-25% of workers in the UK, Canada and USA were earning less than 65% of median earnings, compared to 5-8% in Scandinavia and Belgium. This rise income inequality "tend to reproduce themselves through the generations." There "is far less social mobility in the USA" than in Scandinavia, Germany and Canada and there has been a "severe decline in social mobility" in the UK after the Friedman-inspired Thatcherism of the 1980s and 1990s. Unsurprisingly, there has been "a rise in the importance of property incomes.", with the ratio of property income to labour income rising from 15% in the USA in 1979 to 18% in 2002. In France it went from 7% to 12% and is around 8% in Norway and Finland. [Op. Cit., p. 167, p. 168, p. 169, p. 171, p. 169, p. 173, p. 174 and p. 170]
Needless to say, given the lack of evidence presented when Friedman first published his book in 1962, the 40th anniversary edition was equally fact free. Given that 40 years is more than enough time to evaluate his claims particularly given that approximately half-way through this period, Friedman's ideas became increasingly influential and applied, in varying degrees in many countries (particularly in the UK under Thatcher and the US under Reagan). Friedman does not mention the developments in equality, mobility or labour share in 2002, simply making the general statement that he was "enormously gratified by how well the book has withstood time." Except, of course, where reality utterly contradicted it! This applies not only to his claims on equality, income shares and poverty, but also the fundamental basis of his Monetarist dogma, namely the aim to control the "behaviour of the stock of money" by means of "a legislated rule instructing the monetary authority to achieve a specified rates of growth in the stock of money." [Op. Cit., p. ix and p. 54] As we indicated in section C.8, the devastating results of applying this centre-piece of his ideology means that it hardly "withstood time" by any stretch of the imagination! In other words, we have a case of self-refutation that has few equals.
To conclude, as defences of capitalism based on equality are unlikely to survive contact with reality, the notion that this system is really the best friend of the working person and the poor needs to be defended by other means. This is where the growth argument we debunked in the last two sections comes in. Neither has much basis in reality.
Of course, the usual excuse should be noted. It could be argued that the reason for this lack of correlation of reality with ideology is that capitalism is not "pure" enough. That, of course, is a valid argument (as Friedman notes, Thatcher and Reagan "were able to curb leviathan, through not to cut it down." [Op. Cit., p. vii]). State intervention has hardly disappeared since 1980 but given the lush praise given to the "magic" of the market you would expect some improvement. When Friedman died in 2006, the praise from the right-wing and business press was extensive, listing him as one of the most, if not the most, influential economist of the late 20th century. It seems strange, then, to suggest that the market is now less free than at the height of the post-war Keynesian period. To do so would suggest that Reagan, Thatcher and Pinochet had little or no impact on the economy (or that they made it worse in terms of state intervention). In other words, that Friedman was, in fact, the least influential economist of the late 20th century (as opposed to one of the worse, if we compare his assertions to reality before and after the policies they inspired were implemented). However, he helped make the rich richer, so the actual impact of what he actually suggested for the bulk of the population can be cheerfully ignored.
In the above sections we have discussed the effects of neo-liberal reforms purely in terms of economic statistics such as growth rates and so on. This means we have critiqued capitalism in its own terms, in terms of its supporters own arguments in its favour. As shown, in terms of equality, social mobility and growth the rise of "free(r) market" capitalism has not been all its supporters have asserted. Rather than produce more equality, less poverty and increased growth, the opposite has occurred. Where some progress on these areas have occurred, such as in Asia, the countries have not embraced the neo-liberal model.
However, there is a deeper critique to be made of the notion that capitalism benefits everyone, especially the poor. This relates to the quality of life, rather than the quantity of money available. This is an extremely important aspect to the question of whether "free market" capitalism will result in everyone being "better off." The typical capitalist tendency is to consider quantitative values as being the most important consideration. Hence the concern over economic growth, profit levels, and so on, which dominate discussions on modern life. However, as E.P. Thompson makes clear, this ignores important aspects of human life:
"simple points must be made. It is quite possible for statistical averages and human experiences to run in opposite directions. A per capita increase in quantitative factors may take place at the same time as a great qualitative disturbance in people's way of life, traditional relationships, and sanctions. People may consume more goods and become less happy or less free at the same time . . . [For example] real wages [may have] advanced . . . but at the cost of longer hours and greater intensity of labour . . . In statistical terms, this reveals an upward curve. To the families concerned it might feel like immiseration.
"Thus it is perfectly possible . . . [to have an] improvement in average material standards . . . [at the same time as] intensified exploitation, greater insecurity, and increasing human misery . . . most people [can be] 'better off' than their forerunners had been fifty years before, but they had suffered and continued to suffer this . . . improvement as a catastrophic experience." [The Making of the English Working Class, p. 231]
Thompson was specifically referring to the experience of the British industrial revolution on the working class but his analysis is of general note (its relevance goes far beyond evaluating past or current industrialisation processes). This means that concentrating on, say, absolute poverty or income growth (as defenders of neo-liberalism do) means to ignore the quality of life which this increased income is associated with. For example, a peasant farmer who has to leave his farm for employment in a factory may consider having bosses dictating his every move, an increased working day and intensity of work more significant than, say, a net increase in his income. That this farmer may have been driven off his farm as a result of neo-liberal or other "reforms" is another factor which has to be taken into account. If, to suggest another possibility, Health and Safety regulations reduce work speeds, then national output will be reduced just as unions will stop firms making their workers labour more intensely for longer. However, increased output at the expense of those who do the work is not unproblematic (i.e. real wages may increase but at the cost of longer hours, less safety and greater intensity of labour). Another obvious example would be the family where the husband gets "downsized" from a good manufacturing job. He may get a lower paying service industry job, which forces his wife (and perhaps children) to get a job in order to make ends meet. Family income may increase slightly as a result, but at a heavy cost to the family and their way of life. Therefore the standard of living in the abstract may have increased, but, for the people in question, they would feel that it had deteriorated considerably. As such, economic growth need not imply rising standards of living in terms if the quality of life decreases as incomes rise.
This is, in part, because if the economy worked as neoclassical theory demanded, then people would go to work not knowing how much they would be paid, how long they would be employed for or, indeed, whether they had a job at all when they got there. If they rented their home, they would not even know whether they had a home to come back to. This is because every price would have to be subject to constant change in order to adjust to equilibrium. Insecurity, in other words, is at the heart of the economy and this is hardly productive of community or "family" values (and other expressions used in the rhetoric of the right while they promote an economic system which, in practice, undermines them in the name of profit). In other words, while a society may become materially better off over time, it becomes worse off in terms of real wealth, that is those things which make life worth living. Thus capitalism has a corrosive effect on human relationships, the pleasure of productive activity (work), genuine freedom for the many, how we treat each other and so on. The corrosive effects of economics are not limited simply to the workplace but seep into all other aspects of your life.
Even assuming that free market capitalism could generate high growth rates (and that assumption is not borne out in the real world), this is not the end of the matter. How the growth is distributed is also important. The benefits of growth may accumulate to the few rather than the many. Per capita and average increases may hide a less pleasant reality for those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. An obvious example would be a society in which there is massive inequality, where a few are extremely rich and the vast majority are struggling to make ends meet. Such a society could have decent growth rates and per capita and average income may grow. However, if such growth is concentrated at the top, in the hands of the already wealthy, the reality is that economic growth does not benefit the many as the statistics suggest. As such, it is important to stress that average growth may not result in a bettering for all sections of a society. In fact, "there are plenty of instances in which the poor, and the majority of the population. have been left behind in the era of globalisation -- even where per capita income has grown." This is not limited to just developing countries. Two episodes like this occurred in the United States, with data showing that "the per capita income of the poor falling from 1979-84, and 1989-94, while per capita income rose." Overall, the US has seen its median wage and real wages for the bottom 20th of its populations fall between 1973 and 1997 while "per capita income in the US has risen by 70 percent. For the median wage and bottom-quintile wage to actually fall during this same period is an economic change of momentous proportions, from the point of view of the majority of Americans." [Mark Weisbrot, Dean Baker, Robert Naiman, and Gila Neta, Growth May Be Good for the Poor -- But are IMF and World Bank Policies Good for Growth?] This is a classic example of society with substantial inequality seeing the benefits of growth accrue to the already rich. To state the obvious, how the benefits of growth are distributed cannot be ignored.
In addition, consumerism may not lead to the happiness or the "better society" which many economists imply to be its results. If consumerism is an attempt to fill an empty life, it is clearly doomed to failure. If capitalism results in an alienated, isolated existence, consuming more will hardly change that. The problem lies within the individual and the society within which they live. Hence, quantitative increases in goods and services may not lead to anyone "benefiting" in any meaningful way. Similarly, there is the issue of the quality of the production and consumption produced by economic growth. Values like GDP do not tell us much in terms of what was produced and its social and environmental impact. Thus high growth rates could be achieved by the state expanding its armed forces and weaponry (i.e. throwing money to arms corporations) while letting society go to rot (as under Reagan). Then there is awkward fact that negative social developments, such as pollution and rising crime, can contribute to a rising value for GDP). This happens because the costs of cleaning up, say, an oil spill involves market transactions and so gets added to the GDP for an economy.
As such, the notion of growth as such is good should be rejected in favour of a critical approach to the issue which asks growth for what and for whom. As Chomsky puts it, "[m]any indigenous people apparently do not see any reason why their lives, societies, and cultures should be disrupted or destroyed so that New Yorkers can sit in SUVs in traffic gridlock." [Failed States, p. 259] Under capitalism, much "productivity" is accounted for by economic activity that is best described as wasteful: military spending; expanding police and prison bureaucracies; the spiralling cost of (privatised) healthcare; suburban sprawl; the fast-food industry and its inevitable ill effects on health; cleaning up pollution; specifying and defending intellectual and other property rights; treating the illnesses caused by over-work, insecurity and stress; and so on. As Alexander Berkman once noted, capitalism spawns many forms of "work" and "productive" activity which only make sense within that system and could "be automatically done away with" in a sane society. [What is Anarchism?, pp. 223-5] Equally, "productivity" and living standards can stand at odds with each other. For example, if a country has a lower working week and take longer holidays, these would clearly depress GDP. This is the case with America and France, with approximately equal productivity the later spends less time in work and more time off. Yet it takes a capitalist ideologue to say that such a country is worse off as a nation for all that time people spend enjoying themselves.
These issues are important to remember when listening to "free market" gurus discussing economic growth from their "gated communities," insulated from the surrounding deterioration of society and nature caused by the workings of capitalism. In other words, quality is often more important than quantity. This leads to the important idea that some (even many) of the requirements for a truly human life cannot be found on any market, no matter how "free" it may be. Equally, a "free" market can lead to unfree people as they driven to submit themselves to the authority of bosses do to economic pressures and the threat of unemployment.
So it can be said that laissez-faire capitalism will benefit all, especially the poor, only in the sense that all can potentially benefit as an economy increases in size. Of course, the mantra that economic growth is so wonderful is hard to justify when the benefits of that growth are being enjoyed by a small proportion of the people and the burdens of growth (such as rising job insecurity, loss of benefits, wage stagnation and decline for the majority of workers, declining public services, loss of local communities and so forth) are being borne by so many (as is the case with the more to freer markets from the 1980s). If we look at actually existing capitalism, we can start to draw some conclusions about whether a pure laissez-faire capitalism will actually benefit working people. The United States has a small public sector by international standards and in many ways it is the closest large industrial nation to the unknown ideal of pure capitalism. It is also interesting to note that it is also number one, or close to it, in the following areas [Richard Du Boff, Accumulation and Power, pp. 183-4]:
- lowest level of job security for workers, with greatest chance of being dismissed without notice or reason.
- greatest chance for a worker to become unemployed without adequate unemployment and medical insurance.
- less leisure time for workers, such as holiday time.
- one of the most lopsided income distribution profiles.
- lowest ratio of female to male earnings, in 1987 64% of the male wage.
- highest incidence of poverty in the industrial world.
- among the worse rankings of all advanced industrial nations for pollutant emissions into the air.
- highest murder rates.
- worse ranking for life expectancy and infant morality.
It seems strange that the more laissez-faire system has the worse job security, least leisure time, highest poverty and inequality if laissez-faire will especially benefit the poor or working people. In fact, we find the more free market the regime, the worse it is for the workers. Americans have longer hours and shorter holidays than Western Europeans and more people live in poverty. 22% of American children grow up in poverty, which means that it ranks 22nd out of the 23 industrialised nations, ahead of only Mexico and behind all 15 of the pre-2004 EU countries.
According to a 2007 United Nation report, the worse places to be a child are in neo-liberal societies such as the UK and USA (the UK was bottom, at number 21 one below the US). The UNICEF report dealt with the condition of children in advanced capitalist countries and found that both the UK and US are way down the list on education, health, poverty, and well-being. While UNICEF preferred to state that this is because of a "dog eat dog society", it is hardly a coincidence that these two societies have most embraced the principles of neo-liberalism and have repeatedly attacked the labour movement, civil society in general as well as the welfare state in the interests of capital. In contrast, the social democratic northern European countries which have best results. One could also point out, for example, that Europeans enjoy more leisure time, better health, less poverty, less inequality and thus more economic security, greater intergenerational economic mobility, better access to high-quality social services like health care and education, and manage to do it all in a far more environmentally sustainable way (Europe generates about half the CO2 emissions for the same level of GDP) compared to the US or the UK.
A definite case of what is good for the economy (profits) is bad for people. To state the obvious, an economy and the people in that economy are not identical. The former can be doing well, but not the latter -- particularly if inequality is skewing distribution of any rising incomes. So while the economy may be doing well, its (median) participant (and below) may see very little of it.
Of course, defenders of laissez-faire capitalism will point out that the United States, like the UK and any other real country, is far from being laissez-faire. This is true, yet it seems strange that the further an economy moves from that "ideal" the better conditions get for those who, it is claimed, will especially benefit from it. As such, non-believers in pure capitalism have cause for dissent although for the typical "market advocate" such comparisons tell us littler -- unless they happen to bolster their case then "actually existing" capitalism can be used as an example.
Ultimately, the real issue is to do with quality of life and relative changes. Yet the argument that capitalism helps the poorest most via high economic growth is rooted in comparing "free market" capitalism with historical example, i.e. in the notion of absolute inequality rather than relative inequality and poverty. Thus poverty (economic, cultural and social) in, say, America can be dismissed simply on the grounds that poor people in 2005 have more and better goods than those in 1905. The logic of an absolute position (as intended, undoubtedly) is such as to make even discussing poverty and inequality pointless as it is easy to say that there are no poor people in the West as no one lives in a cave. But, then again, using absolute values it is easy to prove that there were no poor people in Medieval Europe, either, as they did not live in caves and, compared to hunter gatherers or the slaves of antiquity, they had much better living standards. As such, any regime would be praiseworthy, by the absolute standard as even slavery would have absolutely better living standards than, say, the earliest humans.
In this respect, the words of Adam Smith are as relevant as ever. In The Wealth of Nations Smith states the following:
"By necessaries I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without. A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct . . . Under necessaries, therefore, I comprehend not only those things which nature, but those things which the established rules of decency have rendered necessary to the lowest rank of people." (Book Five, Chapter II, Article IV)
As usual, Adam Smith is right while his erstwhile ideological followers are wrong. They may object, noting that strictly speaking Smith was talking of "necessaries" rather than poverty. However, his concept of necessaries implies a definition of poverty and this is obviously based not on some unchanging biological concept of subsistence but on whatever "the custom of the country" or "the established rules of decency" consider necessary Marx made the same point his later works, when he distanced himself from his earlier notion that capitalism resulted in absolute impoverishment. As he put it in volume 1 of Capital, "the number and extent of [the worker's] so-called necessary requirements, as also the manner and extent they are satisfied, are themselves products of history, and depend therefore to a great extent on the level of civilisation attained by a country . . . In contrast, therefore, with the case of other commodities, the determination of the value of labour-power contains a historical and moral element." [p. 275]
It is ironic that those today who most aggressively identify themselves as disciples of Smith are also the people who are most opposed to definitions of poverty that are consistent with this definition of "necessaries" (this is unsurprising, as those who invoke his name most usually do so in pursuit of ideas alien to his work). This is done for the usual self-interested motives. For example, Thatcher's government originally had little problem with the concept of relative poverty and "[o]nly when its policies had led to a conspicuous growth of relative poverty was the idea denounced, and the decision taken by the government . . . that absolute poverty (undefined and unqualified) was the only reality." [Ian Gilmore, Op. Cit., p. 136] Smith's perspective, significantly, is that followed by most poverty researchers, who use a relative measure in evaluating poverty rates. The reason is unsurprising as poor is relative to the living standards and customs of a time and place. Some sceptic might regurgitate the unoriginal response that the poor in the West are rich compared to people in developing countries, but they do not live in those countries. True, living standards have improved considerably over time but comparing the poor of today with those of centuries past is also meaningless. The poor today are poor relative to what it takes to live and develop their individual potentials in their own societies, not in (for example) 18th century Scotland or half-way across the globe (even Milton Friedman had to grudging admit that "poverty is in part a relative matter." [Op. Cit., p. 191]). Considering the harmful effects of relative inequality we indicated in section B.1, this position is perfectly justified.
The notion of absolute poverty being the key dates back to at least Locke who argued in his Second Treatise on government that in America "a King of a large and fruitful Territory there feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day Labourer in England." (section 41) Ignoring the dubious anthropological assertions, his claim was made as part of a general defence of enclosing common land and turning independent workers into dependent wage slaves. The key to his argument is that the accumulation of property and land beyond that useable by an individual along with the elimination of customary rights for poor individuals was justified because owners of the enclosed land would hire workers and increase the overall wealth available. This meant that the dispossessed workers (and particularly their descendants) would be better off materially (see C.B MacPherson's The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes to Locke for an excellent discussion of this). The links with the current debate on globalisation are clear, with so-called "market advocates" and "individualists" providing extensive apologetics for capital moving to authoritarian regimes which systematically violate individual rights and the principles of the "free" market precisely in terms of the increased material wealth this (eventually) produces. But then it is easy for bosses, tenured professors and well paid think-tank experts to pontificate that such sacrifices (for others, of course) are worth it in the long run.
This apparently strange transformation of "individualists" into "collectivists" (justifying the violation of individual rights in terms of the greater good) has a long precedent. Indeed, it can only be considered strange if you are ignorant of the nature and history of capitalism as well as the contortions its defenders have inflicted on themselves (and by yet another of these strange co-incidences that so regularly afflicts capitalism and its supporters, the individuals whose liberty and rights are considered expendable are always members of the working class). So the notion of absolute poverty has always been associated with defending inequalities of wealth and power as well as providing justification in terms of long term benefit for the violation of the "freedom" and "individual rights" they claim to defend. Significantly, the contemporary representatives of the landlords who imposed enclosures framed their arguments precisely in terms of restricting the independence (i.e. freedom) of the working population. As Marxist David McNally summarises after providing extensive quotes, it was "precisely these elements of material and spiritual independence that many of the most outspoken advocates of enclosure sought to destroy." They "were remarkably forthright in this respect. Common rights and access to common lands, they argued, allowed a degree of social and economic independence, and thereby produced a lazy, dissolute mass of rural poor . . . Denying such people common lands and common rights would force them to conform to the harsh discipline imposed by the market in labour." [Against the Market, p. 19] This would only be considered paradoxical if you equate freedom with capitalism.
The underlying assumption under all this is that liberty (at least for working class people) is less important than material wealth, a vision rightly attacked when Stalinism seemed to be out-performing the West in terms of growth before the 1970s. Yet the question, surely, is would individuals freely agree to be subjected to the dictates of a boss for 10-12 hours a day if other alternatives had not closed off by state intervention? As we discuss in section F.8, the answer has always been no. This is the case today. For example, Naomi Klein interviews one boss of a third-world sweatshop who explained that "for the lowly province worker, working inside an enclosed factory is better than being outside." One of his workers rebutted this, stating "Our rights are being trampled" and the he said that "because he has not experienced working in a factory and the conditions inside." Another noted that "of course he would say that we prefer this work -- it is beneficial to him, but not to us." Another states the obvious: "But we are landless, so we have no choice but to work in the economic zone even though it is very hard and the situation is unfair." [quoted by Klein, No Logo, p. 220 and p. 221] It should noted that the boss has, of course, the backing of a great many economists (including many moderately left-wing ones) who argue that sweatshops are better than no jobs and that these countries cannot afford basic workers' rights (as these are class societies, it means that their ruling class cannot afford to give their workers the beneficial aspects of a free market, namely the right to organise and associate freely). It is amazing how quickly an economist or right-liberal will proclaim that a society cannot expect the luxury of a free market, at least for the working class, and how these "individualists" will proclaim that the little people must suffer in order for the greater good to be achieved.
As for the regimes within these factories, Klein notes that they are extremely authoritarian. The largest free-trade zone in the Philippines is "a miniature military state inside a democracy" and the "management is military-style, the supervisors often abusive." As would be expected, "no questioning of authority is expected or permitted" and in some "strikes are officially illegal" (rather than unofficially banned). [Op. Cit., p. 204, p. 205 and p. 214] As with the original industrial revolution, capitalism takes advantages of other forms of social hierarchy in developing countries. As Stephen A. Marglin noted, the women and children, "who by all accounts constituted the overwhelming majority of factory workers in the early days, were there not because they choose to be but because their husbands and fathers told them to be. The application of revealed preference to their presence in the factory requires a rather elastic view of the concept of individual choice." ["What do Bosses do?", pp. 60-112, The Review of Radical Political Economics, vol. 6, No. 2, p. 98] In other words, while the workers may be better off in terms of wages they are not better off in terms of liberty, equality and dignity. Luckily there are economists around to explain, on their behalf, that these workers cannot afford such luxuries.
Looking beyond the empirical investigation, we should point out the slave mentality behind these arguments. After all, what does this argument actually imply? Simply that economic growth is the only way for working people to get ahead. If working people put up with exploitative working environments, in the long run capitalists will invest some of their profits and so increase the economic cake for all. So, like religion, "free market" economics argue that we must sacrifice in the short term so that (perhaps) in the future our living standards will increase ("you'll get pie in the sky when you die" as Joe Hill said about religion). Moreover, any attempt to change the "laws of the market" (i.e. the decisions of the rich) by collective action will only harm the working class. If the defenders of capitalism were genuinely interested in individual freedom they would be urging the oppressed masses to revolt rather than defending the investing of capital in oppressive regimes in terms of the freedom they are so willing to sacrifice when it comes to workers. But, of course, these defenders of "freedom" will be the first to point out that such revolts make for a bad investment climate -- capital will be frightened away to countries with a more "realistic" and "flexible" workforce (usually made so by state repression).
In other words, capitalist economics praises servitude over independence, kow-towing over defiance and altruism over egoism. The "rational" person of neo-classical economics does not confront authority, rather he accommodates himself to it. For, in the long run, such self-negation will pay off with a bigger cake with (it is claimed) correspondingly bigger crumbs "trickling" downwards. In other words, in the short-term, the gains may flow to the elite but in the future we will all gain as some of it will trickle (back) down to the working people who created them in the first place. But, unfortunately, in the real world uncertainty is the rule and the future is unknown. The history of capitalism shows that economic growth is quite compatible with stagnating wages, increasing poverty and insecurity for workers and their families, rising inequality and wealth accumulating in fewer and fewer hands (the example of the USA and Chile from the 1970s to 1990s and Chile spring to mind). And, of course, even if workers kow-tow to bosses, the bosses may just move production elsewhere anyway (as tens of thousands of "down-sized" workers across the West can testify). For more details of this process in the USA see Edward S. Herman's article "Immiserating Growth: The First World" in Z Magazine, July 1994.
For anarchists it seems strange to wait for a bigger cake when we can have the whole bakery. If control of investment was in the hands of those it directly effects (working people) then it could be directed into socially and ecologically constructive projects rather than being used as a tool in the class war and to make the rich richer. The arguments against "rocking the boat" are self-serving (it is obviously in the interests the rich and powerful to defend a given income and property distribution) and, ultimately, self-defeating for those working people who accept them. In the end, even the most self-negating working class will suffer from the negative effects of treating society as a resource for the economy, the higher mobility of capital that accompanies growth and effects of periodic economic and long term ecological crisis. When it boils down to it, we all have two options -- you can do what is right or you can do what you are told. "Free market" capitalist economics opts for the latter.