THE MARXIST REVIEW OF BOOKS
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
Enemy of the people
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.
- The Culture of Contentment, John Kenneth Galbraith,
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
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
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
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
- Fatherland, Robert Harris, Hutchinson, £14.99
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
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
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.'
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
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 46, August 1992