Will Hutton’s How Good We Can Be’

This came out a year ago and I have only just read it! Did it take me so long because I am slow or because Hutton is ignored?

This is a 20-years later follow up to ‘The State we are in’ and makes the same argument for a rational, socially responsible, stakeholder capitalism. Briefly taken up by Blair and then dropped, Hutton for all his eloquence and learning must find life as frustrating as the socialists and Conservatives he dismisses as past their sell by date. There are two problems with Hutton. First, he regards modern capitalism – actually British capitalism – as a deviation from what capitalism should be as well as what it could be. In fact, what you see may be what you get. This is not a malfunctioning system, it is what the system has become. Second, the focus is relentlessly Britain-centred. It is only on page 156 that we learn that by 2007 ‘banks in most countries had turned primarily into real estate lenders’.

But it is a rattling good read for all that, full of useful information and bursting with ideas for reform. It is a measure of just how decayed and corrupted modern capitalism is that a significant section of capital isn’t demanding that his recommendations are put into practice.

The strength of his critique of neoliberalism is that it is rooted in the culture of the society it has created rather than simply its ‘economics’. Inequality and injustice are fundamental to both. To fix it he wants far reaching changes in company law requiring a commitment to  deliver particular goods and services that meet societal needs, a new government-established framework for share ownership rewarding long term commitment and social purpose; public ownership of natural monopolies, and ‘networks’ providing goods and services fundamental to life that must be available to all citizens including rail, water, phones and the transmission of money.

Hutton declares that his programme is not socialist, and it isn’t if reference is made to traditional party programmes of the left and more right-wing social democracy. He calls it ‘stakeholder capitalism’. I think that if the key proposals were implemented in a rigorous and determined way – not a process that relied on securing the willing consent of the vested interests who would be opposed it which is the self-defeating formula so often adopted by democratic socialists – it would actually take us into uncharted waters. How we found our way through them could be a voyage of discovery.


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