Reviewed: The Locust and the Bee by Geoff Mulgan

Hive mentality.

The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future
Geoff Mulgan
Princeton University Press, 344pp, £19.95

“Capitalism,” writes Geoff Mulgan, “is not so much an aberration as a step on an evolutionary path, and one that contains within it some of the answers to its own contradictions.” In thinking of capitalism in this way, Mulgan voices a contemporary consensus. As advances in biology and genetics have promoted the belief that economic and political development can be understood in evolutionary terms, hundreds if not thousands of books have appeared in recent years claiming to explain the rise and development of capitalism as part of an ongoing process of social evolution.

This is not the first time that the idea of evolution has been invoked in this way. Owing more to Engels than Marx, who knew too much about history to imagine that it could be understood in Darwinian terms, there has long been a Marxian tradition that sees capitalism as a stage in social evolution. The current fashion for evolutionary theories of society has much in common with this view and quite a few of those who promote these ideas – including Mulgan – were influenced by Marxian thinking at an earlier stage in their careers.

Yet there is an important difference between the Marxian view and the prevailing consensus. Whereas Marx and Engels understood capitalism as being only one in a succession of economic systems and certainly not the last, today capitalism is seen as the end-point of social evolution.

The Locust and the Bee illustrates this shift. Mulgan is aware of the contingencies of history, pointing to a range of realistically possible futures, “from a future ‘pax Sinica’ overseen by a hegemonic China, to a more fractured global apartheid, or a world where the older powers of Europe and North America revive like phoenixes”. He recognises that capitalism is continuously mutating: “All real capitalisms are impure hybrids, mongrels mixed with other strains.” The book’s first chapter is entitled “After Capitalism” and there are many suggestions that capitalist economies might evolve into something different. However, will what evolves be something other than capitalism or simply another version of it?

The assumption underlying Mulgan’s ana - lysis is that, for practical and political purposes, capitalism is the only game in town. At a global level, this may be right. Despite the financial crisis, there are no signs of any serious rival to capitalism emerging in the foreseeable future. Plainly Mulgan agrees but he seems reluctant to admit this. For him, capitalism is protean to the point of being indefinable in material terms: “It is at root an idea, an imaginary, a way of seeing the world. This idea is the single-minded pursuit of growth in value, or more specifically of growth in representations of value that can be exchanged with others.”

I’m not altogether sure what that means but it’s clear that capitalism is being detached from any particular mode of production. Using Mulgan’s definition –which says nothing about property ownership or market forces – pretty well every economic system since the Renaissance has been capitalist. If the conquistadores aimed to increase value within the Spanish empire, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were equally committed to adding value in their respective systems. True, they had divergent conceptions of value and limited the scope of exchange in different ways but all three fit Mulgan’s idea of capitalism as “the relentless pursuit of exchangeable value”.

You might think the fact that virtually any modern economy would count as capitalist would limit the usefulness of such a definition. In the small world of British politics, however, the opposite is the case. As with Tony Blair’s “third way” and David Cameron’s “big society”, an elastic understanding of capitalism allows governments to condemn the market’s excesses while continuing to entrench market forces in every corner of society. In narrowly political terms, the advantages of such elasticity are obvious. Yet there are corresponding costs – particularly if you think what is needed at the present time is some clarity about which areas of society should be ruled by the market and which should not.

Mulgan can’t offer much help in this respect, since it is a feature of his analysis that every aspect of human activity is described using categories that derive from the market. “The idea of entrepreneurship,” he tells us, “applies as much in politics, religion, society and the arts as it does in business.” From this point of view, John Keats was someone who invented a new brand in negative capability and the Buddha was a pioneer in the mindfulness market. Describing poetry and religion as branches of business enterprise is absurd but it is also increasingly common and is worth asking why.

All human action may be entrepreneurial in some (not particularly illuminating) sense; but the reason there is so much talk of “social entrepreneurship” and the like is not that any profound truth of the human condition has suddenly been grasped. Rather, the political triumph of market liberalism has delegitimated any other way of thinking. Not much more than 30 years ago, it was taken for granted that social institutions could and should be animated by a diversity of values. Old-fashioned conservatives and social democrats both accepted the central role of markets in the economy, while believing that the NHS, universities, the arts and public broadcasting should operate outside the market. Today, with market concepts being applied in every sphere of human activity, such a stance is almost literally unthinkable. As the late Tony Judt noted in Ill Fares the Land (2010), the language of ethics has been usurped by that of economics.

It’s clear that Mulgan thinks he has avoided this trap. “The market turns out to be just one special case of collective decision-making. It uses binary decisions (whether or not to buy) and a single currency, money. But richer communities transcend binary messaging and can cope with multiple currencies – from money to friendship or love.” Yet the notion of love as a currency is telling and it is significant that he goes on to define a perfect community as one that achieves a “Nash equilibrium” – a theoretical construction devised by the mathematician and game theorist John Nash in order to express what human interdependency might mean in a world of rational strategists.

With all the talk of richness and diversity, the idea is still that human relationships can be understood as a succession of exchanges. But it is this idea that has brought us to our present pass. Think of the scandal surrounding Stafford and other hospitals in which ill and frail human beings have been treated with indifference and contempt and thousands appear to have died needlessly. Might not the culture of callousness that exists in some parts of the NHS be somehow connected with the destruction of ethos in the service by incessant market reforms?

One of the ruling ideas of The Locust and the Bee is “social innovation” – a notion that derives, like much else in the book, from management consultancy. If only we could cast off the stubborn resistance to change, Mulgan believes, we could be much smarter in solving our problems. The trouble is that his quasi-economic account of human interaction makes it difficult to distinguish between good and bad changes in any fundamental way. After all, when it results in destructive and uncivilised forms of “lived value” (Mulgan’s curiously abstract way of describing everyday experience), social innovation can be regressive. The injection of market mechanisms throughout public services is a case in point. Ethics and politics are made up of conflicts rather than soluble problems and no increase in smartness will deliver us from difficult choices. In order to make these choices, we need ideas about the good life that go beyond anything that can be expressed in the language of economics.

It may be that the distinction between predators and creators, which Mulgan deploys in an attempt to capture what has gone wrong with capitalism, is meant to fill this gap. “Creators, makers and providers,” he writes, “create valuable things for others” while “takers and predators” are those who “extract value from others without contributing much in return”. He tells us that he takes the distinction from “one of the great founding works of modern capitalism”, Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (which first appeared as a poem in 1705). In Mulgan’s version, the bee “is quietly productive, providing benefits to many. It is also intensely co-operative.” The implication is that capitalism will improve to the extent that it encourages bee-like virtues but that is far from what Mandeville had in mind.

Quite to the contrary: the message of Mandeville’s fable is that capitalism’s dynamism and productivity come from harnessing private vices – rivalry and predation, envy and ostentatious luxury – to public benefit. Without the energy it derives from such vices, the market will not deliver the goods that are demanded from it. There may be a sense in which a beehive is a perfect community but beehive capitalism is a non-starter.

Mandeville’s motives in producing the fable have been the subject of controversy and it remains unclear whether he meant it as satire or a serious contribution to economic theory. Either way, it is a powerfully subversive piece of work, for what it implies is that capitalism not only comes with moral hazards but depends on them for much of its success: the market is as productive as it is because it makes use of the most powerful human motives, not those that may be most morally admirable.

If this is right – and I think it is – the prospect of a kinder, gentler, more co-operative capitalism that Mulgan holds out is just a mirage. Instead, there is a clear need to decide where markets should operate and to build countervailing institutions where they should not. Recent governments have done the opposite, dismantling non-market institutions while babbling on about society and community.

There is much in Mulgan’s analysis that will repay careful scrutiny. He has some usefully demystifying things to say about intellectual property rights, noting: “Intellectual property is neither very intellectual (it’s hard to think of any serious intellectual advance that was protected in law); nor is it exactly property.” Again, he makes a powerful criticism of mainstream economic theory when he notes that conventional explanations of economic growth that stress the vital role of the rule of law and well-functioning markets can hardly account for China, which lacks both. The Locust and the Bee abounds with arresting observations of this kind and no one will finish the book without having learned something new and important.

Where Mulgan’s argument is problematic is in accepting that all human relations can be understood as forms of exchange and suggesting that we can enjoy the market’s benefits without any of its hazards. Rather than leading us out of the current impasse, ideas of this kind are symptoms of what has gone wrong. Capitalism needs to be complemented by strong institutions with a different ethos. This will not come about in some benign process of social evolution but only when governments have shaken off the idea that every institution has to be turned into a business. Capitalism may be the only game in town but it doesn’t have to be the whole of life.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths” (Allen Lane, £18.99)

Capitalist concepts are now being applied in every sphere of human activity. Photograph: Tim Davis/Retail

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
Show Hide image

Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496