Greed is Dead: Politics After Individualism
Paul Collier and John Kay, Allen Lane, £16.99

It is no big claim to say that each of us feels some need to look outwards in order to live a worthwhile life. In so many aspects of our lives – as members of a family, a faith, a club, a community or a nation – we only fully realize ourselves by becoming part of something bigger than ourselves. Clichés are clichés because they are true: we are social beings.

So how is it that in the past few decades we seem to have become so downright selfish? Whatever collectivist instincts we might have seemed to possess have been subsumed in an age of individualism.

The usual off-the-shelf explanation for this is the legacy of the Reagan/Thatcher revolutions of the early 1980s, which aimed to destroy the idea that we have any obligation to anyone but ourselves, breeding a generation inclined more towards ‘me’ than ‘we’.

Fuel for these revolutions was liberally provided by communism’s failure in the early 1990s. Governments that committed to any form of collectivism seemed doomed to fail. Even in China, the Communist Party’s continued grip on power has been part of a social contract which has allowed a degree of social and economic freedom for Chinese citizens that would have Mao Zedong spinning in his grave. The stirring slogan of the Mao era – ‘Serve the people!’ – now seems quaint and anachronistic to most Chinese whose principal aim is to serve themselves.

In the West, at least, one result of putting ‘me’ at the centre of policy was a lurch towards market fundamentalism, the belief that economic activity should be basically unrestricted.

Adherence to this orthodoxy has produced some questionable results: explosive levels of debt, morally empty consumerism and, in 2008, devastating financial crisis. Globalization may have reduced inequality between countries, but only at the expense of increasing inequality within countries. Like sharks smelling blood, populist leaders have gone in for the kill.

In Greed is Dead, Paul Collier and John Kay, two of Britain’s most revered economists, want to make sense of this mess and offer a way out.

Their history of modern individualism sensibly takes them way past the 1980s, back to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is, in a sense, the mother document of the ‘me’ generation.

The planting of a culture of rights in the early post-war years allowed a greedy assertion of the self to grow in subsequent decades. This growth, the authors argue, took two forms.

One is what they call possessive individualism, in which unbalanced ideas about property rights were transmogrified into corporate greed and a ‘because-I’m-worth-it’ bonus culture.

Another is what Collier and Kay describe as expressive individualism. The post-war world encouraged us to assert our own rights. While this has vastly improved the position of women and minorities in the past 80 years, the authors dislike the mushrooming of claims to protection, and reserve special anger for identity politics which they see as the ‘antithesis of membership of a community’.

Where a right exists, so does an obligation. And so the post-war rights culture more or less entailed the growth of an overweening state to ensure that all these claims could be satisfied. In an argument that is mostly focused on the United Kingdom, the authors identify a creeping centralization in recent decades: in the economy, in healthcare and in education. The state became overburdened to the point of being unable to cope.

The authors identify a creeping centralization, in the economy, healthcare and education. The state has become overburdened to the point of being unable to cope.

David Lubin

Collier and Kay’s view of how to get beyond this mess puts a lot of faith in the idea of community. ‘We are communitarians,’ they say, because ‘place matters’. They want to dismantle excessive centralization and to locate decision-making – about government and finance, especially – closer to people whose lives are affected by those decisions.

Localizing politics and banks would, they think, in turn help to localize business and research, allowing productive jobs to be spread widely. And in this way we could rediscover our social, rather than our selfish, nature.

The coronavirus pandemic makes its presence felt throughout the book, even seeping into the authors’ language: exhibitionist greed is ‘contagious’; politicians of both left and right have been ‘infected’ with individualist ideas.

And the pandemic dramatically supports some of their arguments for localism: the test-track-and-trace approach to controlling the virus, for example, can only really be effective with local decision-making and local cooperation. The number of centrist economists arguing passionately about the importance of community is growing these days. Another top economist, Raghuram Rajan, made similar arguments last year in his book, The Third Pillar.

What all these authors are doing, in a sense, is trying to rescue capitalism from itself. Among other things, Collier, Kay and Rajan all agree that one big task is to get the corporation to reconsider its role in society: companies need to think about their obligations to stakeholders, not just to shareholders.

These pleas are laudable, but there is a nagging question: have the centrists left it too late to make their case?

The problem is that the communitarianism of the likes of Collier, Kay and Rajan, is competing with different alternatives to the moral emptiness of an era of individualism.

In their way, the nationalists, the nativists and the tribalists whose influence is everywhere, from Hungary to Israel, from Turkey to India, identify problems in ways that are rather similar to conventionally minded economists.

Their solutions may be less nuanced, to put it mildly, but they do offer something that centrists lack, namely ‘soul-stirring enthusiasm’. This is the phrase that Eric Hoffer, the American sociologist whose 1951 book The True Believer cleverly captured the appeal of mass movements, used to nail down what it is that encourages people to fulfil themselves by folding their identities into a bigger project.

Individualism is one thing. But its opposite, collectivism, can be many things. Collier and Kay recommend a mild dose of collectivism that is built around communities. But electorates across the world seem these days to prefer something stronger as an antidote to the moral disease of our era.