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3am ESSAY: The Strange Voice Of Diane Coyle’s New Capitalism. A Review Of Diane Coyle’s ‘Paradoxes of Prosperity. Why The New capitalism Benefits All.’

It really feels like a revolution is happening when you read her work. And it is exhilarating and scary as well. We don’t know where we’re going. We can’t predict. There will be events happening at unprecedented speed. And mysteries hidden in the momentum. She’s happy to quote Marx here: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’ And in her own words : ‘The future is not someplace you go to, it’s something you build…This could be good or bad news, depending on a society’s inherited history,’ (p148) This is complex, knowing stuff. And of course, for many people, the future happened in the sixties, and is nothing more than nostalgia. Here are the paradoxes spooling out of a mind that sees the weirdness and unexpectedness of the new world.

by Richard Marshall

COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

I walked in a desert. And I cried, ‘Ah, God, take me from this place!’ A voice said, ‘It is no desert.’ I cried, ‘well, but – The sand, the heat, the vacant horizon.’ A voice said, ‘it is no desert.’ (Stephen Crane)

To those who would attack global capitalism as a cultural and moral desert, Cyber-punk economist Diane Coyle is the strange voice countering the accusation.

The late, great Weberian, Ernest Gellner coherently argued that there was a limited set of possibilities for modern human societies. Capitalism was one, Communism another, Nationalism another and Islam yet another. Communism seems to have crashed out of things since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And so there were three.

Nationalism remains crucial today – look at former Yuguslavia and the successor states of the former USSR where it continues to contribute to violence and atrocity – and it can be both problematic and benign. Problematic where nationalist feeling precedes the emergence of national states (such as in eastern Europe), benign in relatively long established states such as France.

Islam is also crucial. Despite the rabid, racist misunderstandings of what the Muslim world looks like, it remains the only theocratic blueprint that has realistically survived intact into the modern world. Gellner’s brilliant book ‘Muslim Society’ (Cambridge 1981) – working through perceptions that blend insights of Ibn Khaldun with David Hume, explains how this is so.

Clearly then, there are real choices to be had about where we are going and how we go there. There are compelling arguments and reasons for going for nationalism in some form or other, or going for Islam in some form or other too. But similarly, capitalism is also a major player, a major option. And if we’re tempted to choose that, then it’s appropriate and necessary to ask which kind of capitalism we want.

It’s this issue that Diane Coyle is addressing in her forensic and brilliant new book ‘Paradoxes of Prosperity. Why The New Capitalism Benefits All.’ (Texere, 2001) Its ok for protesters to march the streets of Seattle, Washington, Melbourne and Prague, for freedom fighters to war in Kosovo, for the World Trade Centre to be smashed to pieces – but what are such protesters after? Do their interpretations of the evils of capitalism amount to anything more than a hill of beans? Because if their analysis of what they are against is false then they shouldn’t be listened to. Nor there alternatives be considered seriously.

Coyle is pugnacious, sharp and cunning. She knows she needs to be. Her position isn’t fashionable. And yet it is quick-witted and compassionate thinking we find in this book. And in her description of the evolution of capitalism into what she calls ‘New Capitalism’ she embraces the paradoxes of prosperity with a toughness that her opponents will have to face up to. She doesn’t duck any of the issues that make capitalism seem morally repugnant to so many. She doesn’t duck the charges but she rams them back in the faces of the accusers and asks them to see things differently.

Reality is a cliché from which we escape through metaphor. In her first book the metaphor she used to begin her sustained polemic was that of ‘weightlessness.’ Her ‘The Weightless World’ ( Capstone 1997) was summarised by Mervyn King, executive director of the Bank Of England, in these terms. ‘In sophisticated economies, output weighs less and is worth more than in the past – just like the people who make it.’ She argued that digital technology and global business are where the new economics are heading. The very on-line magazine, 3am magazine, which carries this review, is an example of what she pictures as the future, a virtual world of excitement and opportunity which is both desirable and possible, opposing the older weighted capitalism pictured as, say, the coal and steel industries.

In that book she argued many things but the message remained the same. Weightlessness is what the modern world will look like. Capitalism can sustain this, and globalisation and the ur-weightless activity of the markets will continue to expand. It will take over the world. ‘…Those on the centre-left who imagine it is both desirable and possible to put the genie back into the lamp are profoundly mistaken. Not only have the markets become the only discipline on bad government fiscal policies and unsustainable increases in borrowing. They are also an agent of weightlessness. They are helping to hurry the transition.’ (page 171) It’s just one moment in a whole range of outrageous statements the book argues for.

But her view suggests what paradoxes she is now identifying in the new book as being at the heart of understanding what is really happening. Because not only does she argue the above – which sounds right wing, market-mad, gee-whiz technophilia - but she places it within an argument for more social concern, greater need to provide security for the underprivileged, more human rights and so on – left wing, tender-hearted stuff in fact. This is what is so exciting about the perspective she offers. She isn’t arguing that some sort of ‘hidden hand’ will make everything be all right in the end but rather says that we have to take on board the new realities and see them as opportunities not problems. She is concerned to show how the possibilities of weightlessness, such as flexibility of working practices, might help solve problems of insecurity and inequality on the one hand and create greater freedom and control too.

The new book develops these themes. Here are some of her points – ‘ The information-based nature of new technologies gives them an even greater radical potential than past waves of change. They demand a creative and thoughtful workforce. They reduce barriers to entry in many businesses. They undermine hierarchies.’ (Page 5) So the challenge she is throwing out in this small example of her argument is precise – how else are you going to do this? Protesters arguing for other ways and means of running an economy have to be able to answer this question.

‘The great transforming technologies end up changing what people do and which people do it, with all sorts of unpredictable knock-on effects.’ (p31) This she argues with force and conviction, and again, the protesters in Seattle and so on have to come clean and say what they are predicting will happen and how come they know this when others don’t. Because Coyle uses an impressive array of information plus a stylish range of illustrations, metaphors and narratives, she forces the positions of her opponents to come out of shadows. For instance – if your opposition to the new technologies is that they just help people do the same old thing as they always did before then she points out that the whole point of embracing the new technologies is to say that people will start doing new things they never did before. Coyle’s point is that often Luddite arguments against computers, the Internet, and so on, are often like this. They are wrong-headed.

But she is keen to advance more than just a mindless pro-technological revolution position. As she delights in pointing out – the consequences of a revolution are not easily predictable. That’s why it really is a revolution. Who knows where we’ll be in ten, twenty years. A hundred years from now. So alongside her insights into the nature of the technological, economic, social and political changes now taking place within capitalism she alerts us to the need to understand them. We need to understand what is happening so that we can produce a fair, good society. And she’s talking global - a globally fair and good society. Knee –jerk oppositional thinking isn’t thinking at all in this context.

This is another aspect of her work that is refreshing and exciting. It really feels like a revolution is happening when you read her work. And it is exhilarating and scary as well. We don’t know where we’re going. We can’t predict. There will be events happening at unprecedented speed. And mysteries hidden in the momentum. She’s happy to quote Marx here: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’ And in her own words : ‘The future is not someplace you go to, it’s something you build…This could be good or bad news, depending on a society’s inherited history,’ (p148) This is complex, knowing stuff. And of course, for many people, the future happened in the sixties, and is nothing more than nostalgia. Here are the paradoxes spooling out of a mind that sees the weirdness and unexpectedness of the new world.

An example is her take on education and what seems to be happening in that domain. As she points out, the people who seem to be doing well are not the conformists but the opposite. She quotes John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid: ‘Much digital innovation has come from people who spend their time on campus wandering around in the arts, theatre, psychology and the humanities – areas not well supported in the unplug-and–pay model of education.’ (p214) The kind of education she sees as being of most use reflects this view and comes close to endorsing Bethan Marshall’s innovative views of non-conformist English teaching found in her book ‘ English Teachers – The Unofficial Guide’ (Routledge Falmer 2000) which have so unsettled a host of hapless British Education Ministers for the last decade. So again we find ourself confronted with a challenging proposition, that the antinomian spirit seemingly on display on the streets of Seattle is in fact what the protesters are opposing. The protesters are the conservative stuffed-shirts, despite appearances.

As Coyle says ‘Our understanding of ‘skill’ is cemented by the needs of the Old Economy and what was in short supply there, which was brain as opposed to muscle…What’s scarce now are qualities like creativity and imagination, compassion and warmth, insight and attention.’ (p282) This is an insight about modern life as moving and disturbing as Ballard’s ‘…gleam on refrigerator cabinets, the contours of a wife’s or husband’s thighs passing the newsreel images on a colour TV set, the conjunction of musculature and chromium artefact within an automobile interior, the unique postures of passengers on an airport escalator…’ (Science Fiction’ in ‘A User’s Guide to the Millennium’ page 207). It is also perhaps more surprising and more difficult to accept, more weird. Yet Coyle argues tenaciously for this and other strange positions and any opponent will be forced to discard the traditional and clichéd arguments against capitalist /technological innovation if they are to challenge Coyle’s refreshing and idiosyncratic position.

Coyle’s aware of her opponents and she gets in her counter-punches first. When you read her pointing out that… ‘it would be a mistake of the highest order to allow the old elites to hijack the new technologies to preserve their wealth and power, on the false assumption that economic trends are an obstacle rather than a weapon, or are nothing more than a manifestation of American imperialism…’ (p287) you smell the grapeshot. She’s out to do serious damage and knows where she can hurt.

So with this book you have an economist doing what you need them to do, which is to expand the debate through imagination and clearly articulated, jargon-free prose. This is a genuinely innovative book that recasts the landscape of what had seemed a familiar argument. The book does what any great book needs to do, which is make things strange. Anyone interested in what choices confront us as we enter the early stages of the new millennium needs to ponder Coyle’s views of the possibilities within Global Capitalism deeply even if you don’t agree with all of her conclusions. For like the voice in the Crane poem, she is saying it isn’t a desert.







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