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John Kenneth Galbraith's The Culture of Contentment has been widely reviewed as an attack on modern capitalism. Phil Murphy sees it more as a defence of old-fashioned capitalism against the modern masses

Enemy of the people

  • The Culture of Contentment, John Kenneth Galbraith, Sinclair-Stevenson, £14.95
The Culture of Contentment is an easy read, and that's one of its problems. It provides a no-holds-barred exposure of many of the more revolting features of capitalism in slump. From financial scandals to the new militarism of the Gulf War, American capitalism comes under abrasive scrutiny. Although Galbraith focuses on America, similar examples of graft and corruption in the rest of the Western world come easily to mind: Olympia & York, Lloyds, BCCI, Robert Maxwell, to name only some recent British cases.

But for all its bite, the political message of this book is profoundly conservative. The message is that capitalism as a system is not to blame; the responsibility lies with the well-off people who express their short-term preferences in the polling booths. With his unusually trenchant style, Galbraith provides a much more effective apology for capitalism than most of the recent spate of pro-market texts. His polemic against 'modern capitalism' is in fact designed to help save old-fashioned capitalism.

Galbraith is a devout believer in capitalism as the best way of organising society. For Galbraith, as for Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, to reject the pursuit of profit maximisation is to reject 'the basic tendency of human nature' (p54). Firmly rooted on this foundation, he stands out as an unashamed and eloquent critic of the way modern capitalism works. The Affluent Society, his most famous book, first published in 1958, has become the definitive political liberal's critique of the postwar boom. In it, Galbraith poured scorn on the revival of market ideo-logy after the Second World War, highlighted the inefficiencies and inequities of the free market, and argued for greater social compassion and public spending on behalf of the less fortunate in society.

Now he has approached today's depression from the same perspective. His conclusions for economic policy are also similar. He identifies the slump as a consequence of the supply-side economics of the 1980s applied in America, and in slightly different ways in Britain and elsewhere. Galbraith claims that, by following the popular objective of getting 'government off the backs of the people' (p22), government policy has opened the way to greater social inequalities and to the sort of major business collapses and scandals to which unregulated modern capitalism is so prone.

His alternative is to argue for a revival of state intervention and welfare provision in order to mitigate 'the inequities and cruelties of the system and, in doing so...to ensure the survival of capitalism'. (p52) He makes the case for public works schemes and other expansionary government expenditure as the required 'macroeconomic regulation' in recessionary times. He wants these to replace the counter-productive reliance on the monetary policy of the 1980s.

However this argument for greater state activity is not what makes this book important or unique. Even in today's climate of general adherence to free market ideology there remains a significant group of economists and commentators who join Galbraith in promoting the Keynesian line. What is distinctive, and politically objectionable, about Galbraith's book is the explicit attempt to blame ordinary people for the failings and iniquities of modern society. The author restates his basic thesis in the last line of the book, pointing to 'the contentment that is the cause...[of] the present discontent and dissonance' (p183).

For Galbraith there are three strata within the population: the rich, the fortunate and the poor. The first two have allied together during the years of prosperity to form the 'contented electoral majority'. Theirs is the 'culture of contentment' which becomes the font of all evil in society today.

All the traditional and populist ogres are put in the firing line as well - the financiers, the big corporations, the military-industrial complex. But again and again, Galbraith returns to emphasise that it is the 'contented electoral majority' which must carry the responsibility for the problems of modern capitalism.

Their pursuit of narrow self-interest, of looking to their own short-term comfort rather than the long-term interests of capitalism, has fuelled 'the new overriding commitment to laissez-faire and the market and the resulting movement towards general deregulation' (p62). To this, Galbraith attributes all the disquieting features of modern American life, with which there are parallels across the Western world.

For example, Galbraith enters the discussion about the 'underclass' in America's inner cities, and points to the possibility of an 'underclass revolt' (the coincidence of the Los Angeles riots with the launch of Galbraith's book provided his publishers with another selling point). His contribution to the debate is to ascribe the potentially explosive character of the underclass to the myopia of the contented majority. 'The economically fortunate, not excluding those who speak with the greatest regret of the existence of this class, are heavily dependent on its presence' (p31).

Yet apparently the contented majority are too preoccupied with their own immediate well-being to countenance the implementation of welfare measures to defuse social unrest: 'It has always been one of the high tenets of comfort that the uncomfortable accept peacefully, even gladly, their fate. Such a belief today may be suddenly and surprisingly disproved.' (p171) Aren't the comfortable people stupid?: 'It is unfortunate that human feeling is not more sensitive, but so it is.' (p160)

Galbraith also blames the speculative insanity of the 1980s on the mood of the contented. The Savings and Loans scandal; the wave of unsustainable property speculation; the self-destructive tendency of the large company, expressed in the mergers and acquisitions mania of the 1980s; all these are attributed to the short-sighted attitude of the contented.

This shortsightedness has led to the weakening of state regulation and the legitimation of laissez-faire policies. The greed of the 'contented' is ultimately to blame for all these developments in casino capitalism. And not just the scandals, but the slump too. There is no doubt, writes Galbraith, that the 'primary responsibility' for the severe recession starting in 1990 lay with the 'short-run economic policies of contentment' (p157).

In the spirit of absolving capitalism - as opposed to its unacceptable modern face which he freely criticises - Galbraith makes strenuous efforts to distance even this attitude of self-satisfied contentment from the ideology of capitalism. This same culture of contentment was supposedly at work in the decline of the Roman Empire, in the decay of the aristocratic court of Louis XVI, and in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not content with drawing illegitimate historical parallels, Galbraith goes on to suggest that these social phenomena have natural causes. The culture of contentment is nothing to do with 'the capitalist world', we are told; it is the uncontrolled expression of a deep and general 'human instinct' (p7).

Even the American government is absolved of any responsibility for trying to run capitalism: 'Much that has been attributed in these past years to ideology, idiosyncrasy or error of political leadership has deep roots in the American polity.' (p27) Don't blame Reagan or Bush, pleads Galbraith, they are just 'faithful representatives of the constituency that elected them' (p18).

Galbraith's elitist contempt for the 'people' ends up letting capitalism off the hook. Capitalism has shown itself to be a severely limited and historically obsolete form of organising society. Yet it is presented as the natural and eternal order of things by economists. So, when the moribund features of capitalism are once again exposed by a world slump, along comes Galbraith, just as Keynes did in the 1930s, to blame the people and their psychological defects for the failures of a bankrupt society.

A Thatcherite polemic masquerading as a political thriller is Daniel Nassim's verdict on Robert Harris' Fatherland

Nicholas Ridley - the novel

  • Fatherland, Robert Harris, Hutchinson, £14.99 hbk
Imagine a world without Auschwitz. The name of the Nazi death camp conjures up images of the depths of human depravity: gas chambers, piles of dead bodies, human skeletons in pyjamas. Robert Harris, until recently a columnist for the Sunday Times, has created just such a world in his best-selling thriller, Fatherland.

It is 1964 and Germany has won the war. Its vast empire includes all of eastern and central Europe, much of Russia, the Baltic states, and parts of Western Europe. Britain is led by a tame regime friendly to Germany. Winston Churchill and his government have fled to Canada long ago, while King Edward VIII, a Nazi sympathiser, sits on the British throne.

It is a world in which the dream of revisionist historians like David Irving, who seek to deny the existence of the Holocaust, has become a reality. Following Hitler's dictum that 'the right history is worth a hundred divisions', the Nazi state has covered up all references to the murder of six million Jews. Words which today are part of our lexicon of terror do not figure in the vocabulary.

The plot centres on an investigation into an old man's suspicious death by Xavier March, a homicide investigator with Berlin's Kriminalpolizei (Kripo), the criminal police. March has all the tell-tale signs of a Nazi baddie that will be familiar to any British reader. He wears a black uniform, carries a Luger pistol and has the SS rank of Sturmbannführer (equivalent to major). But March has ceased to believe in the Nazi system. And in the course of his investigation, with the help of his American lover, he comes to recognise the full horror of the regime.

By the end of his investigation he confirms what he had long secretly suspected: that the Jews who had lived in what became Germany's empire had not just been 'resettled' somewhere to the east. They had been murdered by the million in Hitler's death camps. This gives away the plot. But then the climax will be clear to most readers from early in the story.

Besides, the real point of Fatherland is not the story itself. It is the carefully researched detail of what Europe would be like under German domination. One device Harris uses to make this point is to send March on a tour of Berlin. This is not the Berlin of 'Checkpoint Charlie', where the Cold War divides East from West. Instead, we have a Berlin designed by Albert Speer, the leading Nazi architect, to celebrate the glories of the Reich.

In a typical passage, describing how March and his son find themselves in the centre of Berlin, Harris paints a graphic picture of the German colossus: '[They] had reached the top of the Avenue of Victory, and were entering Adolf Hitler Platz. To the left, the square was bounded by the headquarters of the Wehrmacht High Command, to the right by the new Reich Chancellery and Palace of the Führer. Ahead was the hall. Its greyness had dissolved as their distance from it had diminished. Now they could see what the guide was telling them: that the pillars supporting the frontage were of red granite, mined in Sweden, flanked at either end by golden statues of Atlas and Tellus, bearing on their shoulders spheres depicting the heavens and the earth.' (p27)

Sometimes Harris' descriptions of his hypothetical Berlin are disturbingly familiar. When March pays a taxi driver in Reichmarks, Harris notes that 'every country on the continent accepted Reichmarks, it was Europe's common currency' (p193). This is surely the nightmare of opponents of European Monetary Union today.

Indeed the front cover of the book is illustrated by two familiar flags: the swastika on a red background and the 12 gold stars of the European Community against a blue background. With only a few minor changes, such as the addition of Scandinavia, Harris' fictional EC contains the same countries as today's.

It is a Europe where 'people drove German cars, listened to German radios, watched German televisions, worked in German-owned factories, moaned about the behaviour of German tourists in German-dominated holiday resorts, while German teams won every international sporting competition except cricket, which only the English played' (p196).

In case anyone had missed the point, Harris wrote a cover story for the Sunday Times News Review entitled 'Uber Alles: Nightmare landscape of Nazism triumphant' (10 May 1992). It was illustrated by a colour picture of Hitler with Albert Speer's Great Hall in the background. The article is even more explicit than the novel about Europe under German domination.

Harris notes that in 'the Nazi system, the British, French and Italian economies were to be satellites around the German sun', and asks rhetorically, 'Has it not happened?'. There is no let up: 'One by one, Hitler's central war aims have been achieved. Bolshevism has been wiped out. The Slav peoples have been reduced to penury. The centuries-old threat from the east has disappeared. Once the recession ends, Germany is poised to enjoy massive economic expansion eastwards, into what was once communist territory.'

By this time Harris has well and truly given the game away. His concern is not really Hitler's Germany, but the modern version under Helmut Kohl. Harris articulates the British establishment's fear of being marginalised in a Europe ruled by Germany. Until the end of the Cold War, Britain still counted for something as the USA's junior partner in Europe. Today, Germany is politically as well as economically the leading power on the Continent and Britain has been relegated into the league of has-been nations.

Why does Britain's decline express itself so often in the form of an obsession with the Second World War? You can scarcely open a British book without finding some reference to the Second World War. You cannot turn on your television without seeing an old war film or a documentary about the Nazi era. You can't go to a cabaret without some comedian making a crack about the Germans. It seems like the football fans' anthem - 'two world wars and one world cup' - has become the standard response of the British establishment to its contemporary predicament.

Britain is obsessed with the war because it has such a bleak future. The implication of this obsession with the past is that Britain may not have as good an economy as Germany, but at least it has a better history. Britain may not have brand names that can compete with Mercedes, Volkswagen or BMW, but it once had the Spitfire, Churchill and VE Day.

This is where the Holocaust comes in. For Harris and other commentators, the Holocaust is the ultimate proof of Anglo-American moral superiority. This point was emphasised in the author's commentary on the recent Bomber Harris affair. In a tirade against those who opposed the statue dedicated to the man responsible for carpet bombing Dresden, Harris said that for him 'the most disturbing feature of the campaign against the statue has been the rise of moral equivalence: that the British terror bombing campaign puts us on the same level as the Nazis' ('The big difference between "Butcher" Harris and a Nazi', Sunday Times, 31 May 1992).

All of this goes entirely against the historical record. Before the Second World War, British leaders had no complaints about Nazi anti-Semitism. Indeed, anti-Semitism was rife in Britain too in the thirties, and even increased during the war. Winston Churchill was a notorious anti-Semite and a believer in British racial purity.

During the war, the Allies made no attempt to save the Jews who were being massacred in Europe. After the war, the Jews were shunted off to a giant ghetto in the Middle East called Israel. The Holocaust only became a popular subject of discussion in the late seventies, when Germany began to re-emerge as a world power.

Auschwitz is indeed an appropriate metaphor for human depravity. But its significance is not that the killing was carried out by Germans. It is rather that Germany was the most cultured and economically advanced capitalist nation in Europe. Even at its most developed, capitalism can only offer barbarism.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 46, August 1992

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