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  • Andrew O'Brien

Book Review: Greed is Dead by Paul Collier and John Kay

One of the most powerful ideas within Western Civilisation is the idea of the “Perfectibility of Man”.

Whether through philosophical education, science or political revolution, there is a school of thought that consistently believes that if only we tear down the barriers holding humanity back (ignorance, tyranny, capitalism etc.) human beings can do anything.


Traditionally, conservatives have had a more pessimistic view believing that bubbling beneath the surface, there are always faults which can lead to chaos. Therefore, conservatives have supported institutions (the State, the Monarchy, the Constitution, the Church etc.) that they believed would counter-balance humanity’s natural tendencies to disorder.


Paul Collier and John Kay are very much in the “perfectibility camp” rather than the conservative camp. Like Rosseau, they believe that if only human beings can overcome their amour-propre then we can create better communities, a better economy and a better politics. The “chains” which imprison mankind are to be found in the form of “individualism” – a culture that they keen to attack. Remove this false ideology and humanity can come together around shared values and shared places.


The return of the Communitarians


Collier and Kay call themselves communitarians. These are a band of thinkers that link the development of the “self” to social interactions within a community. In summary, Collier and Kay believe that there are no autonomous rationally calculating individuals. Everyone is embedded within a society and a place. Our interactions with our family, community and wider society shape who we are in and give us meaning. “Utility” is therefore a myth, as utility is something that no one individually can measure and comprehend, as it is in essence a collective process.

Homo economicus in action?

The problem is that our society, businesses and states are governed by the myth of the autonomous rationally calculating individual, so called Homo Economicus. This is an important point for Conservatives to consider. As the authors document, the 1980s saw the Conservative Party embrace this version of humanity and shaped public policy around it. Entrepreneurs required financial incentives to create jobs and wealth, hence significant tax cuts and deregulation. The unemployed required incentives to get back to work, hence cuts in benefits and a tougher sanctions regime. Communities will only build homes if they are given financial inducements to do so. There was nothing about meaning or dignity in this discussion. It was rational. It is was utilitarian. It was wrong.


But as the subtitle of the book “Politics After Individualism” indicates, most political parties and policy makers have seen through “Economic Man” and no longer truly subscribe to this theory. So, the real question is what is to be done?


Appealing to our better angels


The problem for the authors is that beyond talking about the need to restore the value of community and place, there is little of substance in the way of solutions. To be fair to Professor Collier, his excellent book “The Future of Capitalism” did outline a number of policies and suggestions about how to correct the system, so perhaps it was felt unnecessary to add more or go over old ground. There is also strong focus on “culture” and “communication” to do the heavy lifting of change, these are inherently intangible and perhaps the authors felt that there was nothing specific that could be done to create the conditions to speed up the emergency of a more communitarian society?


The problem is that this leaves much to chance and hope, rather than any clear methods for change. The section on business is a typical example. After rightly taking to task for the way that it has privileged shareholders over all over stakeholders such as workers and society, they outline nothing beyond a statement that business should rediscover its community spiritedness. More “Titus Salt” and less “Gordon Gecko”. All very well and good, but how is it to be done?


There is a discussion about purpose in business, but then a rejection of “activism” within business to actually solve the world’s problems. The business of business remains business, just do it is a way that does not damage society. Businesses should make a “positive contribution” to society, but that is it. How is this institutional change in the way that business behaves to come about? A blank.


The authors raise the example of Nobel Prize winner, Elinor Ostrom, who has outlined how communities can collectively govern themselves through the creation of shared norms and practices. Yet none of this insight is deployed to business itself. Common purpose, common rules and enforcement are required for communitarian governance, but not to business. Why?


Rage against the machine


The authors have written a punchy, easy to read, book which outlines the failures of “neoliberalism” as we encounter it today. Unfortunately, the insights within it are presented in such a way that the reader feels a sense of powerlessness. Perhaps the authors feel that the direction of travel is inevitable?

This sense of listlessness is summed up in the reliance of the authors on the idea of “super communicators” who will be able to persuade people to embrace new forms of organisation and bring about change. In a way, this calls to mind Hegel’s concept of the Weltgeist – the world spirit.


Throughout history, Hegel identified special individuals who were able to communicate and bring into being the ‘spirit of the times’. Socrates, Julius Caesar, Napoleon are just some examples.

Collier and Kay are thinking on a lower level than epoch-shaping transitions, but whilst it is undeniably true that change requires agents to bring it into being, focusing purely on individuals and not systems is not a recipe for success because the two are so closely bound.


Even Hegel, a philosopher who very much believed in the importance of great individuals, placed as much importance (if not greater) on systems-level change such as religious reformation, the formation of effective state and the emergence of new classes. There was a dialectical process for Hegel which intimately tied new the corruption and birth different systems of politico-economic organisation with the emergence of individuals who are prepared to use these world shaping forces to create a new world. Napoleon cannot emerge, for example, without the French Revolution. How will the super communicators develop, without some systems change?


Taking this to the lower level of Collier and Kay, for these super communicators to emerge, old systems will need to die and new ones will need to be formed. Sketching what this new political and economic architecture could be is essential if a genuinely new wave of leaders are ever to emerge.

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