Friday, October 19, 2012

Plutocrats: A Pre-Review

Those familiar with my book reviewing style may recall that I prefer a sort of lengthy argument with an author - I can't wait until I've finished the book to start the review. So let it be with Chrystia Freeland's: Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. This book could have been another cheesey episode of "Lifestyles of the Really Really Rich" but it isn't, though there are tidbits for the incurable voyeur.

Freeland is a veteran economics correspondent who has spent a couple of decades interviewing and hobnobbing with her subjects, but she - so far - is more interested in economics than personalities. After making it clear that she sees us in a new "Gilded Age" she takes a long historical look at the originals: the great industrialists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, AKA the "Robber Barrons." Andrew Carnegie was one of the princes of that crowd, and more than his fellows interested in history and sociology. Carnegie and others get quoted to good effect.

The original industrial revolution dramatically increased the world's wealth, but the effects were both profoundly disruptive and highly uneven. A small group of very successful entrepreneurs became immensely wealthy, while the petty capitalists of the previous age were wiped out or reduced to employees. As Carnegie noted, in previous ages there was only a small economic and social gulf between the employer and employee that became a chasm in the new system. The industrial employer ran a factory employing ten thousand people he never knew or met.

The response to the dislocations was war, revolutions, and two crucial social movements. One was Marxism and the other was the social progressiveness of Henry George. Marx aimed to destroy private property and capitalism. George aimed to capture its benefits, preserve it, and ameliorate its destructive edge. A lot of Twentieth century history consists of the working out of these two potent movements.

Marxism had its big successes in relatively primitive countries, especially Russia and China, and it did transform them, but in the end it couldn't compete with George's progressive Capitalism, which triumphed in the West. Progressive capitalism was not something every capitalist was very enthusiastic about, but faced with the red threat, they hurried to make the progressive compromise. Now that red is dead, new notions are stirring.

Freeland clearly believes that our age is a new edition of that industrial age, driven this time by globalization and the information revolution.