Market capitalism reloaded

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 September, 2011, 12:00am


Anatole Kaletsky is a man whose views carry the heft of one of the great Western thinkers of our day. An economist and journalist, with an impressive CV that includes stints at The Economist and the Financial Times, he is now a famously provocative columnist at The Times.

A slew of titles inspired by the global financial crisis (GFC) have tumbled onto bookshop shelves since that cataclysmic autumn of 2008.

Most of these books are based on business and economic theories. This reviewer has yet to see one thoroughly researched title dedicated to the human cost of the GFC - this is the one the world is waiting for.

In the meantime, we have Capitalism 4.0, which seems to skim over the human cost of economic downturns, but which does an insightful and detailed job of illuminating the history of capitalism.

Kaletsky makes a case for the financial crisis of 2008 being a turning point in the evolution of capitalism, the fourth stage since the 18th century. Capitalism isn't dead, he trumpets - the difficulties of recent years have simply meant it has morphed into a different creature, just as it has done in the past.

The author posits that Capitalism 1.0 - from the cotton fields of the American south to the sweatshops of colonised Shanghai - represented a time when economics and democratic politics were kept separate in the West, right up to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.

Capitalism 2.0 - the epoch dominated by the views of economic theorist John Maynard Keynes and United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt - followed. This was a time when governments had to help nurture the conditions for business recovery, following the Great Depression in the US.

Capitalism 3.0 reversed Capitalism 2.0, as market forces became king of the world, championed by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her American ideological soulmate, US president Ronald Reagan. No one listened to the Left until it was too late. Then 2008 came.

So now we are muddling our way through Capitalism 4.0 which, Kaletsky explains, will require business leaders to be more pragmatic, versatile and adaptable. He stirs up debate on the nature of the market economy that we now need to envisage. His prose is clear but his ideas are sometimes difficult to follow - obviously the thoughts of an observer of market forces rather than a participant or a victim.

But the 'Beijing Model', which mixes the characteristics of a command-economy and laissez-faire economics, holds promise, he argues. He also foresees the further development of symbiotic and pragmatic relationships, principally between government and private agents, to prop up the global economy.

By and large, he's hedged his bets, as this is already happening. But for readers with a passion for economics, and those looking for hints of what kind of a future we're facing, this is a fascinating work.

As one who has made it his business to predict the future, Kaletsky has a mixed record. The Times owner Rupert Murdoch has trusted him, over the years, to make accurate forecasts. And he does so with uncanny regularity. But when Kaletsky gets it wrong, he gets it very wrong, as in June 2008 when he stated that the credit crunch was already abating. In fact, it had hardly begun - and worsened dramatically over the next two years.

Nevertheless, his grasp of history, his brilliant and energetic mind, and his bold assertions, contribute to this engaging read, especially so for C-suite executives, who are probably familiar with Kaletsky and his work.

Kaletsky's boldest assertion is that the GFC actually strengthened capitalism, and this forms the thesis for the book.

Now, in the interests of balance, the publishing world needs to deliver that timely book on the human cost of capitalism. The nearest it has come in recent years has been with The China Price by Alexandra Harney and Factory Girls by Leslie Chang.

Both titles (which narrowly predated the GFC) look at the downside of the contemporary mainland Chinese economics that Kaletsky generally lauds.

In any event, this ambitious work is written with elan, and gets one pondering the nature of capitalism and its future, which is the intent of the writer.

Book Capitalism 4.0
Author Anatole Kaletsky
Publisher Public Affairs