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‘Democracy will fail, and our freedoms will evaporate’

Two new books, by US senator Bernie Sanders and journalist Martin Wolf, sound similar warnings about the perilous future of glabal capitalism

It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism
It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism
Author: Bernie Sanders
ISBN-13: 978-0241643280
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £22
The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism
The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism
Author: Martin Wolf
ISBN-13: 978-0241303412
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £30

People are angry. The failures of capitalism are the cause. The failure of democracy itself could be the result. These are the central themes of two new books, one by US senator Bernie Sanders and the other by Financial Times chief economics commentator Martin Wolf. Sanders is a self-professed democratic socialist; Wolf is a lead contributor to one of the world’s foremost financial periodicals. One might assume they’d agree on very little. One would be wrong.

No doubt, both authors would be horrified at the thought of being considered ideological fellow travellers. But that is the overwhelming sensation reading these books side by side. Could this be indicative of an emerging consensus on the ills of a society governed by the doctrine of market fundamentalism? Could western liberal democracy itself really be in peril without a sharp course correction?

Because of his gruff demeanour and passion in prosecuting his case, Sanders is often derided as an angry populist. The title of It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism would seem to play to this stereotype. In fact, Sanders displays an impressive grasp of policy minutiae across health, education, tax, media and the environment, to name a few. He shows not only an ability to campaign – and write – in poetry, but, in his legislative work, an aptitude to govern in prose. Yes, at times the repetitiveness of his rhetoric can be grating in book-length format, but it certainly hammers home the message in accessible language.

Sanders borrows the title of a 1931 folk song by Florence Reece, wife of a Kentucky mining union organiser, as one of his chapter titles: “Which side are you on?” He is on the side of working people and thinks you should be too. Ranged in opposition are an increasingly plutocratic corporate elite and their foot soldiers in the corridors of power. This “us against them” rhetoric is central to populist discourse. Indeed, Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe classes Sanders’s politics as “left populism”.


It hardly comes as a surprise that Sanders sees the modern Republican Party as beholden to corporate interests, and Donald Trump as prince of the plutocrats. But they are not the principal focus of his ire – they don’t pretend to be anything else. As suggested by the book’s title, Sanders recognises that working people in the US are angry at what they see as an economic system that is rigged against them.

“Tragically,” he says, “the Democrats have ignored this anger, and ignored the pain and frustration that cause it.” Indeed, this is a charge that can

be levelled at mainstream left-wing parties across the West. Renowned economist Thomas Piketty has called it the rise of the “brahmin left”.

From the outset, Sanders is clear that his is not the politics of personality, but of movement-building: “Not me, us.” His politics is about giving people a voice that they may never have had before, listening to what people need rather than telling them what they want. He sees a “multiracial, multiethnic, multigenerational” coalition operating within the Democratic Party as the most viable vehicle to deliver for working people. But, pointing to the example of Martin Luther King, he also stresses that “electoral politics is not the only venue for achieving transformational change”.

Perhaps the senator’s most interesting chapter focuses on the future of work. Technology has radically changed our economies and societies, mostly for the better. It will continue to change the way we work and live, and policymakers need to be alive to the challenges as well as the opportunities.

Sanders argues that “the pace and direction of technological change cannot be left to the market if there is to be hope for a fair distribution of the benefits of that change.” He advocates the use of competition policy to break up giant tech companies that abuse a monopoly position; differential tax treatment of labour-replacing technology investments, as was recently done in South Korea; shortening the work week; increased worker representation in the management of big companies, as in Germany; and government supports for worker-owned businesses and co-operatives. Many of his proposals could usefully be considered by Irish and European policymakers.

The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism is an altogether more erudite affair. Martin Wolf writes in the sober language of the technocratic elite. His work is methodical, data-heavy and peppered with graphs, extensively referenced and footnoted. He marshals a vast array of evidence to chart the parallel rise of capitalism and universal suffrage democracy, and to support his claims that both are now in crisis.

Wolf paints on a broader canvas than Sanders. His horizons are global rather than parochial, although some of his most compelling examples – not least Trump and Brexit – are from the US as well as his own country, the UK. Arguably, these countries are at the “uber-capitalist” (Sanders’s term) frontier – cautionary tales for the rest.

He notes solemnly that “the present condition of western liberal democracy is deeply worrying”, pointing to important economic causes: “slow growth, high and rising inequality, deindustrialisation and, more recently, adverse economic shocks.” Echoing Sanders, he places the lion’s share of blame on what he calls “rentier capitalism”, in which a privileged few extract unearned rents from the hard-working many. Wolf does not seem to consider, however, that this might be “a feature, not a bug” of capitalism.

Perhaps paradoxically, he sees democracy and capitalism as both symbiotic and in tension with each other. Capitalism inevitably gives rise to unequal outcomes, while democracy has at least the potential to undermine the pillars on which capitalism stands. He goes on to say that “there are two main ways in which this delicate balance between politics and market can be destroyed: state control over the economy, and capitalist control over the state”. Lamenting that the balance is broken, it is the latter that most concerns him, namely that a plutocratic elite has rigged the economic system, and exerts undue influence on the political system. Since “plutocracy leads to autocracy”, for Wolf, nationalism and authoritarianism are the most immediate barbarians at the gate.

In the economic sphere, Wolf’s policy prescriptions largely draw on the recent work of progressive economists. For the most part, they are neither new nor particularly radical. A number of proposals – such as a job guarantee, which Sanders sees as vital – he considers carefully before dismissing as impractical.

It is in the political sphere that the author gives free rein to his blue-sky thinking. He makes a range of proposals aimed at “reinforcing civic patriotism, improving governance, decentralising government and diminishing the role of money in politics”. Interestingly, among his proposals to revitalise democratic participation are citizens’ assemblies, pointing to the model’s success in Ireland over the past decade. (But Ireland could learn a lot from Wall’s example of the successful and empowered model of local government in Switzerland.)

Such change could be transformational, but Wolf is no revolutionary. He preaches “everything in moderation”. Karl Popper’s idea of “piecemeal social engineering”, or incremental reform, is his guiding light.

Both authors yearn for an updated, green social democracy for the 21st century. If the current generation of policymakers fail, Wolf cautions ominously, ‘democracy will fail, and our freedoms will evaporate’

Both books share a hero: four-term US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom Wolf suggests “led the most important reforming government in any democracy in the 20th century” despite being “demagogic in style and populist in content”. Both authors are enamoured of FDR’s New Deal, and with the postwar social democratic consensus in Europe.

The similarities do not end there. Both authors lost family during the Holocaust, their parents fleeing to the US (Sanders) and UK (Wolf). Both want to remove the pernicious influence of money on politics. Both recognise austerity was the wrong response to the global financial crisis. Both call for the revitalisation of local and public service media. Both support wealth taxes and a crackdown on tax avoidance. Both recognise climate change is an existential threat. Both call for public policy to support strong trade unions. Without pretending to have all the answers, both recognise the urgent need to regulate the digital economy in the interest of citizens.

Martin Wolf is correct in saying that “the West cannot go back to the 1960s…the world has changed too profoundly for nostalgia to be a sane response.” Rather, he calls for a “new” New Deal. Thus, both authors, although they don’t name it as such, yearn for an updated, green social democracy for the 21st century. If the current generation of policymakers fail, Wolf cautions ominously, “democracy will fail, and our freedoms will evaporate”.

Throughout the Celtic Tiger, there was always latent anger among Irish communities left behind by newfound prosperity. With the post-2008 economic collapse, this anger crystallised and became generalised, permeating the political discourse. While the economy may have recovered, the scars of the crisis weigh heavily on the generation who entered adulthood without the same opportunities as their immediate predecessors. Much of this same generation is still locked out of the housing market, a market that has clearly failed. Over the past year, consumer prices are rising faster than incomes so that living standards are falling at their fastest clip since 2009. Anger is far from diminished.

Martin Wolf would warn of the perils to Irish democracy. Bernie Sanders would say that we have it within our power to vote for the transformational change we need.

Further reading

Greed Is Dead: Politics After Individualism

By Paul Collier and John Kay (Penguin, £9.99)

Two leading economists take aim at the toxic individualism that characterises much modern economic and political thought – both the unreality of homo economicus and narcissism of identity politics. The antidote, they argue, is to tap into our communitarian human nature to inform a rebuild of our social, economic and political institutions. A short, must-read polemic.

The Upswing: How We Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again

By Robert D Putnam, with Shaylyn Romney Garrett (Swift Press, £12.99)

This book charts steady improvements in the US from the late 19th century: more economic equality, more co-operative politics, more social cohesion, more cultural altruism. But progress reversed in the 1960s and has continued deteriorating. The conclusion is clear: a new progressive era can initiate another upswing.

The Third Pillar: The Revival of Community in a Polarised World

By Raghuram Rajan (William Collins, £9.99)

Too often, economists focus on the balance between the market and the state but don’t pay enough attention to civil society, the author’s “third pillar”. This book argues that empowering and investing in local communities is key to addressing growing social discontent and political polarisation. A masterful yet accessible tome.