My latest Guardian comment article

In: Daniel In The News

16 Mar 2013

One of the most peculiar but least understood developments of our time is the emergence of billionaires against capitalism. Even some of the greatest beneficiaries of the market system seem deeply disillusioned with it.

Bill Gates provided a striking example this week when he slated the market for distorting important priorities. He reportedly told a Royal Academy of Engineering conference that governments and philanthropic organisations need to counter this flaw. The software billionaire gave the example of the malaria vaccine getting virtually no market funding, whereas male baldness gets ample.

His remark was striking because of Gates’ stature, not because of its content. Socialist critics have argued for over two centuries that the market is poor at meeting human needs. The rich, in contrast, have tended to dismiss such criticisms.

Gates is not alone among billionaires excoriating capitalism. Warren Buffett, one of America’s richest investors, has lambasted the super-rich for failing to pay their fair share of tax. George Soros, another anti-capitalist financier, has long argued that the market system is falling apart.

Of course none of these billionaires, nor the many other wealthy types who hold similar views, are calling for a Bolshevik overthrow of capitalism. Despite disliking important aspects of the market economy, they see little alternative. Recently, many, including Gates and Buffett, have taken to pledging to dedicate most of their wealth to philanthropy, in an apparent form of penance.

But it would be wrong to dismiss their gripes about the market as hypocrisy or spin. It is hard to see why they would feel under any pressure to adopt such a stance for appearances’ sake. Their immense wealth gives them the luxury of ignoring public opinion if they wish. Nor is anyone threatening to appropriate their riches. The more disconcerting possibility is that they believe their own criticisms. They have lost confidence in the system that has let them become fabulously rich.

The more this possibility is examined, the more it becomes clear this is what is happening: fears about the destructive impact of capitalism trickle down from the wealthy. Take the discussion of the environment. Rich men such as Richard Branson, Ted Turner and indeed Al Gore seem genuinely worried about severe environmental damage and perhaps even the planet’s destruction. Naturally, they see this possibility as an example of market failure, rather than deliberate intention. The conclusion is that capitalism must be constrained, rather than be allowed to operate unfettered.

This can be seen as a form of romantic anti-capitalism rather than anything to do with socialism. It is a conservative reaction against what they see as the destructive side of modernity, popular prosperity and industrial production.

This view inverts the traditional leftwing critique of the market. Capitalism used to be criticised for failing to raise popular living standards sufficiently, and was seen as insufficiently dynamic to meet the needs and expectations of the working class. Romantic anti-capitalism, in contrast, slates capitalism for in effect being too productive. The market is routinely savaged for producing too much “stuff”. High levels of popular consumption are condemned as unsustainable and viewed with dismay, if not disdain.

So what at first appears to be a radical viewpoint, with its stinging rebukes of capitalism, turns out to be essentially conservative. It leads to calls not only to restrain economic growth, but for individuals to curb their material desires.

This green perspective shapes the drive to austerity. It holds that everyone should be prepared to make do with less, for the sake of social cohesion and the environment. Or, in Buffett’s phrase, it emphasises the need for “shared sacrifice”. Barack Obama too has endorsed this view.

Those who oppose austerity should stop fretting about supposedly all-powerful neoliberals who are ideologically committed to a minimal state. To the extent such figures ever had influence, it was back in the 1970s and 1980s.

Paradoxically, the contemporary drive to austerity comes from a peculiar form of anti-capitalism. It permeates down from the wealthy through the political class to the rest of society. Its criticisms of the inefficiency and inequities of capitalism only make it more convincing, and therefore more dangerous.