Avram Alpert

ISBN 978-0-691-20435-2

Princeton £20

 Reviewed by Alan Dent

Alpert takes aim at “greatness” and in its stead recommends the “good enough”, the term being borrowed from D.W.Winnicott. In its essence, the book is a defence of anarchism, though he doesn’t use the term. He does refer to Community Wealth Building (the Cleveland and Preston models) which is anarchistic in its attempt to give people control over their own enterprises, dispensing with both capitalists and the State, though it uses “anchor institutions” which are likely to be at least State supported to get off the ground. Just what Alpert means by “greatness” is never clearly defined. He also uses terms like “decency” which have no agreed meaning as if we all know what they mean. In this way, he makes his task a little harder. His “greatness” has long been recognised as negative, as far back as the ancient Greeks. Writers galore have raged against it. “There thou mays’t behold the great image of authority / A dog’s obeyed in office” wrote Shakespeare in King Lear. Literature is almost by definition a debunking of “greatness” even amongst writers whose conscious affiliation was to the political right. What Alpert has in his sights is inauthenticity, pompousness, compensatory narcissism, swank, snobbery, grandiosity, all the characteristic defence mechanisms of the alienated (and nothing alienates like wealth). He’s at pains to head off the criticism that his prescription would deny us Bach, Poussin, Mozart, Einstein and Jane Austen. Thus, he isn’t attacking greatness in the sense of lifting a practice to its highest level, but rather the phoney strutting of the weak-minded who use money and power as props. Similarly, his idea of the “good enough” doesn’t mean accepting the mediocre (who would want a mediocre surgeon taking out their appendix or a mediocre electrician wiring their house?). His chosen terms set him a problem he could have avoided. Maybe he could have written about “false greatness” and the “modest life”. Einstein was a great scientist but modest. Trump is a lousy politician but full of ignorant bombast. It’s the latter Alpert seeks to dismiss. 

Alpert is a good academic. The book is excellently researched. The bibliography is wide and his references fascinating.  Once he wriggles free of the difficulties his terms have created, his arguments are clever and convincing. He’s excellent on von Hayek who tied himself in knots trying not to recognise that the so-called “free market” is a delusion. Von Hayek’s belief in a State which encourages, or maybe more accurately, enforces competition is the conclusion of a mind which couldn’t set interest aside. His ostensible belief in liberty turns out to be licence for the rich: “…the competitive system is the only system designed to minimize by decentralisation the power exercised by man over man.” What he means by the “competitive system” is capitalism. He doesn’t answer the question of how capitalists got their wealth : plunder, violence, exploitation, child labour. Isn’t that the power of man over man? Trace back the threads of wealth and what you arrive at is violence. As the man said: “Capitalism came into the world dripping with blood and dirt.” It still drips. 

Alpert explores Adam Smith interestingly too. Smith is misused by the neo-liberals. He was a classical liberal. Like his friend Hume he believed in a natural sympathy between people. Alpert sees him, in spite of the first sentence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, as a defender of “greatness”. It’s true Smith made some mistake in thinking but it’s worth remembering that The Wealth of Nations was written taking his previous book for granted. As the universe is governed by a beneficent deity, only “partial evil” is possible. Finally, all will tend to the good. Smith can see the evil of capitalism, but he believes it must serve a good end as that is how the universe is constituted. In Moral Sentiments he writes: “The pursuit of personal wealth is a delusion.” Who in the Adam Smith Institute quotes that (or even knows it)? He specifically argues that government must intervene to prevent the condition of working people under division of labour being reduced to that of beasts. Did Thatcher or Regan mention that? He uses the term “the invisible hand” only twice in both instances to support the notion that the apparently unenlightened self-interest of the capitalist results in him being “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” What underpins this is Smith’s faith in the moral nature of the universe; a capitalist may want to be greedy and selfish, but life is set up to prevent him. He is “led” away from his original aim and the “end” he serves is social cohesion, the expression of that very native sympathy Smith thought the ruling human sentiment. This is a million miles from Thatcher, Regan, G.W. Bush, Trump, and their debased belief that the greedy must be permitted to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us. Smith’s formulation, “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind: everything for ourselves, nothing for anyone else” is as pertinent as ever. It is almost the motto of US foreign policy.  

Alpert’s exposure of the true Smith is welcome, given the way he is used by the right to defend every wayward policy. His explanation of why Smith produced the notion of the “invisible hand” is accurate, though he doesn’t mention Smith’s overarching faith in the moral nature of a god-ruled order. He sees Smith as a defender of “greatness” in his conviction that capitalism will provide the growth that will benefit everyone and he recognises that Smith was in a cleft stick, trying to find a way to justify a system whose cruelty was obvious while writing: “To restrain our selfish and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind the harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety.” Alpert is right: Smith was mistaken. Nevertheless, perhaps he isn’t a true advocate of “greatness” in Alpert’s sense. He lived modestly; was never rich nor powerful; worked diligently at what he saw as important. If the individual capitalist in his theory is replaced by co-operative enterprise, as in the Montdragon example, it makes more sense. Alpert remarks that today Smith might be a social democrat. Perhaps he’d be an anarchist.  

Alpert takes a brief look at the notion of meritocracy. It’s interesting (and also hilarious) that the term was coined in satirical vein by Michael Young in his famous book, but is now employed in all solemnity by dim-wit politicians who seem unaware of its origin. Young’s assault on the stupidity of imagining rule by the meritorious is possible has transmogrified into a fixed ideology according to which society is a sorting mechanism which allocates each person to their rightful place in a hierarchy of money, power and status. If you believe that you conclude Trump deserves his billions and Martin Luther King a bullet. Alpert draws  Sandel and Kwame Antony Appiah into his discussion; both have good points to make but neither, in Alpert’s view is sufficiently an enemy of “greatness.” It’s hard not to feel at these points that Alpert ought to draw more on the radical tradition. Nothing he’s saying in essence wasn’t said, though not in quite the same way, by Kropotkin. Perhaps it’s being American that’s the barrier; maybe the book has to be cast in terms which won’t raise too many hackles in a society which still believes in the American Dream. In any case, Alpert could cut through a lot of his self-justifying argumentation if he simply said  it’s a moral requisite that people should encounter one another on grounds of equality. No one is good enough to have power over anyone else. You don’t need the concept of “greatness” to get at these straightforward points.  

Alpert goes wrong in his thinking here and there. He refers to an apocryphal story about Flaubert spending the morning adding a hyphen and the afternoon removing it. He writes that Flaubert recounted this to an “interviewer”. Flaubert didn’t give interviews. He died in 1880 before the celebrity writer interview was thought of. Alpert thinks Flaubert was mistaken to take great pains over his writing. He wasted his time. He missed insights in the pursuit of perfection. We the readers also miss out by fixating on the perfection. Flaubert, however, wasn’t pursuing perfection. On the contrary, he was painfully aware of the inadequacy of language: “Human speech is a cracked drum on which we beat out melodies for bears to dance to when we would like to turn the stars to pity.” Chomsky might agree. What Flaubert was doing, in fact, was making his novels “good enough”. He certainly never believed they were perfect. Of L’Education Sentimentale  he said: “It lacks falsity of perspective” and what was wrong with it was “you have to read to the very end to understand what it’s about.” He was right to work hard at his writing, just as Bach was right to work hard at Equal Temperament and Darwin right to spend so much time examining fossils. Where would we be if Darwin had said: “Oh, this theory will do. I can’t be bothered with all this effort.” This is where Alpert is hoist by his own petard. Flaubert was trying to lift his writing to a level commensurate with what it had to do to make the novel work. That’s a responsible attitude. He wasn’t writing for fame or money. He didn’t get much of either; but he did get prosecuted for offence to public morals for telling the truth. Getting some purchase on the truth is hard work. It isn’t a pursuit of perfection, but it is the enemy of slovenliness.  

In that regard, Alpert is a teacher on the writing programme at Princeton. Yet he can write sentences like : “The problem with this argument…is that it is entirely factually wrong.” All this sentence means is: “This argument is wrong.” Four words rather than twelve. In a similar way, Alpert writes: “…capitalism (a too general term to describe different possible forms of market-driven economies)” and a few pages later “The economic system that we live within..” Capitalism, private or State, is easy to define: it’s the relationship between employer and employee. Surely “capitalism” is a better term than the circumlocution “The economic system that we live within”.  Alpert could learn a lot about writing by reading Flaubert.  

Polanyi’s famous remark about so-called free-market societies is cited as part of Alpert’s rejection of Smith, Hayek and “free enterprise” advocates in general: “Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society.” The argument that capitalism is the enemy of the State is a right-wing myth. Capitalism is characterised by the use of State power in defence of property. The power of the State to hang the poor for stealing bread, to enclose the common lands or to force children up chimneys was never challenged by capitalism’s apologists. Only when the State began to be used to gain for the common folk what they couldn’t afford in the market was the anti-Statist position elaborated. Naturally, as Polanyi predicted, it’s ditched whenever crisis threatens to up-end capitalism itself. Hence, the “socialism for the rich” of 2007/8. Polanyi’s definition of socialism dismisses the Marxist faith in inevitability: “Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilisation to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.” This correctly identifies the anti-democratic nature of great wealth which buys the influence supposed to rest with the voters. World politics for the last century has been, essentially, the attempt to entrench democracy. The right has never ceased to try to undermine it because if what the voters support ever became policy, the rich would be doomed. Polanyi’s substantivism drags “the economy” from the realm of abstraction, where it resides in right-wing rhetoric, and sees it for what it is: the relationships in and through which we produce and distribute our means of life. Alpert also cites Richard Woolf and gets beyond the idiocy which defines socialism as total State ownership to the rationality of socialisation. Being employed by the State is still employment and employment is a moral outrage. Co-operative work relations in which people meet one another in equality are the solution. Not only are they morally superior, they are more productive, as the example of Gravity Payments shows. When its owner, Dan Price, was challenged by an employee for the injustice of paying his staff an average $35,000 while he took $1 million, he reflected and changed his ways. Everyone, including him, got $70 and the results were impressive: not the bankruptcy and devastation which the right claims would follow on equality, but greater productivity, reduced staff turnover, staff getting out of debt and being able to contribute to pensions. It’s because this is possible, and relatively easily, that the right has to work night and day to generate the propaganda which says it would be Armageddon. 

The historian Walter Johnson remarked: “There was no…capitalism without slavery..” Alpert isn’t convinced that capitalism required racism,  but the record since 1492 supports the hypothesis that the last five hundred years have been conquest, based on racism, in pursuit of lucre. Had Columbus responded to the Tainos with the gentleness and grace they exhibited, where would we be? Joseph Conrad, who was a conscious political conservative, examined in his best fiction the tragic effects of putting the pursuit of material interests higher than moral principle. In essence, that is what capitalism has to do. No one got rich by loving his neighbour as himself. 

An important part of Alpert’s argument is about the unpaid labour of women. None of our accepted economic measures take account of the contribution to prosperity played by childbearing, childrearing, homemaking, the enormous effort of half of the world’s population. Only when women enter the workforce is their labour acknowledged. There is a false “liberation” of women abroad: if they climb to the top of some pyramid or other, become rich and powerful (like men) they are liberated. This keeps the majority of women in low-paid jobs, juggling demanding family responsibilities and does nothing to impel the genuine liberation of equality.  

Perhaps the most important discussion here is climate change, because if we don’t get that right, nothing else matters a gnat’s whisper. The ecomodernists (his example is Andrew McAfee) argue that capitalism is the answer. The crux is “dematerialisation”, our ability to produce more stuff from fewer resources. McAfee is an advocate. GDP growth has happened alongside a reducing use of raw materials. Wow. The Holy Grail. Full throttle capitalism, red in tooth and claw, vicious competition for profit will bring the technological advances which will permit us to use less and grow more. The circle is squared. Degrowth is debunked. Gladly, Alpert uncovers McAfee’s threadbare thinking and misuse of what he has culled from the excellent Vaclav Smil. Smil, arguably the world’s best authority on matters of energy use, recognises that lower use of resources leads to greater consumption. Far from rip-roaring capitalism as the answer, we simply have to consume less, though not uniformly. People in Nigeria need to consume more because they are dirt poor. People in the US need to consume much less. They are suffering an actual and metaphorical obesity crisis. Take air travel. The COP 26 target is a 50% reduction in CO2 by 2030, relative to 2010 levels. There are 25,000 planes in the global fleet. They carry 22 billion passengers a year. They run on kerosene. How many run on electricity or hydrogen? None. We have less than 8 years. The technology doesn’t exist. Can we build 12,000 wide-bodied, long haul, carbon-neutral aircraft in 8 years. Impossible. The only answer is to cut the number of flights by half. Yet travel is the world’s largest industry. Billions rest on it. Hence, no one is telling the truth, except Smil, who lets the numbers talk.  

Capitalism will be the death of us, and of much else. Alpert’s prescription is rational and heartening. What is missing is any sense of how we bring about the transformation. In a way, that’s wise. Predicting the future is a fool’s game. The left has been hobbled by Marx’s predictions, which were ill-considered and wild. There is serious thinking to be done about how we can challenge the deadly status quo. Perhaps we have to begin by countering the propaganda system which permits the right to stand the world on its head every day.  

Leslie Brothers in Friday’s Footprint: How Society Shapes the Human Mind says the basis of human society is conversation. When people can talk to one another as equals, no one can lord it. Flannery and Markus in their seminal study The Origin of Inequality point out the role played by mockery in holding back those who sought to gain power over others. We live in a culture where people are lectured, sermonised, talked at, bombarded, bamboozled. The majority don’t get a chance to be heard in any way that matters. You can’t talk straight to your boss. Politicians are out of reach. We need a culture of conversation where the person who gets too big for their boots can be deflated by a bit of raillery.  

There’s a quotation by Einstein which perhaps sums up what Alpert is getting at: “Nothing truly valuable arises from ambition or a mere sense of duty; it comes rather from love and devotion towards humanity and towards objective things.” Love of humanity and a commitment to the objective are singularly lacking in our culture. We need to put them at its centre. This book may help us.