A little over 25 years ago, in the midst of the “Lawson boom” and the Thatcher government’s privatisation of major public utilities, David Marquand, the political writer, historian and former Labour MP, published a book entitled The Unprincipled Society. In it, he examined the “tacit understandings” that, in his view, lay at the root of the “adjustment problems” experienced by Britain’s political economy after the oil shock of 1973 and the crisis of “stagflation” that followed.
According to those understandings, society is nothing more than an aggregate of atomistic individuals and any notion of “public purpose” just the sum of essentially private projects. Marquand’s analysis of this politico-intellectual dispensation remains largely intact in his latest book.
Mammon’s Kingdom is a much angrier book than The Unprincipled Society, however—partly because, in Marquand’s view, the “attrition of the public realm” has intensified over the intervening quarter-century. He inveighs here against the rent-seeking “power elite” in Britain that moves back and forth through the “revolving door” between the public and private sectors.
Marquand does righteous anger very well—it’s hard to think of a political writer with a finer prose style—but what is missing is any analysis of the institutions of the post-modern market state; for example, the enormous “para-statal” organisations—companies like Serco and G4S—that run public services today. For that, one would have to look elsewhere, to the work of journalists such as James Meek, to which Marquand’s diagnoses are nevertheless an indispensable philosophical accompaniment….