Over the past 25 years or so, the former Labour MP turned writer and academic David Marquand has written a series of books anatomising Britain’s distinctive political economy. His work has always been characterised by broad historical range and philosophical depth. Marquand’s latest book, “Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now”, manages to be both a tearing, furious polemic against the “Mammon worship” to which he thinks this country has succumbed and an elegant analysis of the “tacit political understandings” that have shaped British political discourse during the last three decades.
Britain’s political-economic settlement—Marquand calls it “state-supported financial-sector primacy”—is not new. He traces its roots back to the creation of the Bank of England in 1694, which helped the British state to “mobilise credit on a scale none of its Continental rivals could emulate.” The London-based financial services have always had more political clout in Britain than any other economic sector, Marquand writes. And that’s been true in spades since the late 1980s. Underpinning the primacy of the City of London and of financial capital more generally, he argues, is a distinctive kind of “moral economy”. When I spoke to Marquand recently, I began by asking him to explain what he means by the “moral economy”.
DM: It’s an idea I borrowed from E.P. Thompson. Thompson has this fascinating suggestion in one of his essays that the so-called “bread riots” that occurred in times of dearth in the 18th century were not just products of blind despair; they reflected what he called a “moral economy” which said that it was morally wrong to profit on the exceptional sufferings of the poor in times of dearth, and that something other than pure profit and loss should govern the behaviour of people who have means. Now, Thompson seems to be saying, in my reading at any rate, that this was a moral economy of the crowd, but he doesn’t allow for the possibility that the millers and sellers of bread who the crowd were attacking may have had a moral economy of their own, which was opposed to the moral economy of the crowd. And from that I develop the idea, which I think is new, that you can have more than one moral economy in a society at a given time, and that they can be at war with each other. I suggest that in the 20th century, in the postwar period, there was a solidaristic moral economy that prevailed. Of course, there were dissenters from it; not everybody accepted it. But that has now given way to the moral economy of market fundamentalism. And that’s the one that has reigned ever since the collapse of the postwar consensus and the arrival of Mrs Thatcher on the scene.
JD: One of the things you’re doing in this book is offering an account of how the moral economy of market fundamentalism displaced the solidaristic moral economy. Central to that shift, you seem to be saying, is the downfall of different kinds of elite—the “clerisy”, the professional services elite and the working-class elite. And this is connected with what you called, in a previous book, the “decline of the public” isn’t it?
Yes it is. What I think happened is that those elites became rather complacent and unimaginative, and suffered from a kind of hardening of the intellectual arteries. That’s why they fell. They were under threat from market individualists like Hayek and also from those I call “moral individualists”, who I trace back to Cambridge at the beginning of the 20th century and the philosophy of G.E. Moore and others.
That’s interesting because it suggests that Hayek and others on the “New Right” were pushing at an open door in the mid-to-late 1970s; that the postwar public realm was, in part at least, undermined by this complacency, by the assumption—and you take Anthony Crosland as representative here—that capitalism had been definitively tamed.
I think that’s true. Andrew Shonfield and, in the United States, Daniel Bell thought the same as Crosland. By their lights—and here I’m following the analysis of Andrew Gamble—the crisis of stagflation in the Seventies shouldn’t and couldn’t have happened. They had no explanation for it and, in a way, closed their eyes to it. They weren’t offering a way out of it, except more of the same. So you’re right: Thatcher, Reagan and co were pushing against an open door, because there was no real alternative being offered to them, except what I’m afraid I would still describe as the crazy alternative of the Bennites. The “Alternative Economic Strategy” and the rest of it. That patently was not a runner.
Middle-way social democrats and social liberals, and indeed old-style One Nation Tories, didn’t actually have an alternative. I recently reviewed John Campbell’s biography of Roy Jenkins. What I said there is that Jenkins was, in a way, fighting in effect a defensive war. He wasn’t alone in that. The same was true of the leaders of the Labour Party and also of the so-called “Wets” in the Conservative cabinet. They outnumbered Thatcher but had nothing to say.
It does sometimes seem as though social democracy today is essentially defensive. A good example of that is one of Tony Judt’s last books, Ill Fares the Land. It was essentially a lament—for him, social democracy was about defending existing institutions against the depredations of the market.
The present condition of debate in this country is a remarkable demonstration of what we’re saying. Here is the second most severe crisis in the entire history of capitalism and what happens? Where is the political leader of the democratic left who says, as Roosevelt did in the 1930s, “drive the money-changers from the temple”? Partly, I suppose, it’s because although the level of hardship, relatively speaking, may be as great as it was then, it is not so in absolute terms. In 1930s America, banks were closing all over the place and people were literally faced with starvation. So it may partly be that, though I don’t think it’s an entirely satisfactory explanation.
The closest we’ve come, on the centre-left at least, to an alternative has been what is sometimes called “responsible capitalism”. But you’re quite sceptical about the idea in this book. You see a kind of neo-Keynesian fallacy at work here in which the moral dimension of the crisis is ignored. You write: “Capitalism is impossible without good people living good lives.” That’s a thread that runs throughout the book: that this crisis has been one not just of the political economy, but of the moral economy.
The reaction to David Cameron’s recent and admittedly rather crass attempt to bring a moral dimension debate by describing Britain as a Christian country was very interesting. I agree with the people who said, “Come on! Christian?” But I also stress in the book that the traditions which we need to recover, in a different form and using different language, include religious traditions. Some of the most effective critiques of what is happening in global capitalism have come from figures like Rowan Williams and Pope Francis. More so than from any political leader.
You’re looking in what some may regard as unexpected places for intellectual sustenance aren’t you? You look not only to religious traditions, but elsewhere outside the social democratic tradition. You look to Burke and to Mill. Why do you find those thinkers congenial and useful?
I’ve been fascinated by Burke for some time. What Burke was doing challenging what we’d recognise as the notion of individual freedom by putting forward a notion of the community as composed of the dead, the living and the yet-to-be-born. That seems to me to be much closer to the green movement, today, than to any conventional political party. I draw from it an ethic of stewardship—we’re not freeholders of the political community we belong to, we’re tenants. And we have a duty to pass it on to our successors as it was passed on to us by our predecessors. And that of course applies to the environmental question that is now so central. We have to think in terms not just of our grandchildren but of much more distant generations. I think Burke provides a basis for that.
You mentioned earlier your debts to the work of Andrew Gamble. But it seems to me that what you add to his account of the transformation of the political economy of this country in the late Seventies and early Eighties is an account of the transformation of the moral economy that we’ve already spoken about. Now an aspect of your argument that I find particularly powerful is the way you try to get us to see that what Thatcherism did was not only transform the economic structures of the country. It was a transformation of ethos as well. Thatcher was quite frank about this wasn’t she? She said, notoriously, that “Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul.” So central to that project, in your view, was an assault on the ethos of public service. Thatcherism, in other words, wasn’t just about privatising state assets. It was also a long march through the institutions, particularly public institutions of a kind that, historically, Britain had done rather well—non-market institutions that operate at arm’s length from the state, like the BBC, the universities and so on.
I call it in the book the “war on professions”. Thatcher thought that if professionals pray in aid a distinctively professional ethic, it’s a lot of humbug. There are just producer interests. And if they get a chance, they will rig the market in their favour—that’s what they do. They’re cartels, if you like. The terrifying thing about that kind of analysis is that once you get gripped by it, it’s very hard to stop, because it accords with a very crude kind of common sense.
David Marquand’s “Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now” is published by Allen Lane (£20).