OWe live in capitalist economies that offer great wealth, innovation and dynamism, but which teeter from systemic crisis to crisis, create gigantic inequalities and do not care about nature and the societies of which they are a part. Obviously we want more of the former and less of the latter – but how? Never easy, this question now so bitterly divides Western politics that in the United States there is even talk of a second civil war. Post-Brexit Britain is only slightly less toxic.
Two increasingly hostile camps live in their intellectual and political silos. On the one hand, there are the “first selves”, the apostles of salvation through individualism. Capitalism propelled by individuals aggressively pursuing self-interest will deliver. It is essentially self-organized, self-propelled and self-dynamic. Don’t worry about booms, busts, monopolies and disastrous social side effects; we have to bear them as we do over time. They will sort themselves out over time. Any public intervention will lead to errors and costs that will outweigh the benefits. Let the tall poppies grow taller and wealth will eventually trickle down; inequality is the price paid for capitalist efficiency. Capitalism harnesses the base metals of human greed and self-interest to deliver the alchemy of economic dynamism.
On the other hand, are the “we first”. They are equally passionate in their insistence on the salvation of the group and society and convinced, whether it is the climate emergency, high-tech monopolies, crippling uncertainties about living standards or simply the obvious truth that we humans are as much altruists as individualists, that following ‘me first’ is the way to perdition. What is crucial for us as social beings is the group, the society, the common good and belonging as equals. After all, it was group association that was fundamental to our evolutionary ability to hunt and ward off predators. This primordial desire to associate in the group is what underlies happiness and well-being. What people want is less the exercise of choice in markets, more control of their lives in the service of what they value – and this is best done collectively and, where possible, equitably.
And so the ‘I’s and the ‘we’ clash in intense enmity, crystallized in debates over the right response to the virus. The ‘I’s inhabit a world in which we must make our own choices, even when it comes to vaccinations, and the state must be minimalist. The ‘we’ are calling for compulsory vaccination, early lockdowns and Covid passports. Yet sustainable policy is to mix the two: find ways to persuade individuals, by choice and shame, to get vaccinated and to ensure that Covid passports are used, but only when it is clear that public health demands it – for the NHS and care workers and for all major events. Too much “us” zeal and there is an unbearable state intrusion into our lives; too much libertarian “I” and you are free to infect me and possibly kill me. Yes, we need the pluralism of different options and individual action; likewise, we need an agile public space and collective action at the service of the group.
The good society (and successful public policy) is one that intelligently uses its institutions to reconcile the “we” with the “I”. It is great institutions, in the private and public sectors, that bind society together and mitigate the worst excesses of collective strength and individual license. The problem is that we have too few and the ones we have are undermined by the “me first” domination that insists that anything to do with “us” is coercive and undermines freedom. .
So, despite ‘me first’, we are witnessing the success of the NHS through this pandemic, clearly dedicated to serving ‘us’ but never in an oppressive way. So, too, are the incredible vaccines incubated at the Jenner Institute in Oxford, the university itself an example of combining the “we” of a shared academic vocation but with 37 competing individual colleges. These were then deployed under the impetus of the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, an institution partly tax-funded and partly funded by its own commercial activities but dedicated to promoting the public interest of a cellular ecology and strong genetics. And it’s all thanks to an enlightened corporate capitalist, AstraZeneca, which has institutionally recognized its social purpose of promoting health by selling a billion doses at cost.
Another institution that has proven itself in the pandemic is the BBC, notably its political and health teams. Laura Kuenssberg and Ros Atkins, for example, showed the power of non-partisanship, while Fergus Walsh and Hugh Pym were role models for sound, informed reporting. This had a cascading effect on much of the media. In a deadly pandemic, beyond some conservative backbenchers and right-wing columnists, there can be no luxury in ideology. Everyone wants to get to the other side in the best and safest way possible.
Our democratic institutions have been less secure. Checks and balances essential to political integrity were found to be insufficient. It should never have been possible for the Prime Minister to use executive discretion, backed by a parliamentary majority, to retrospectively alter the terms of the Committee on Standards in Public Life; it must be understood that these institutions, including the Electoral Commission, can only be reformed deliberately and with the support of all parties. They represent “we”. Public procurement, too, has proven spectacularly prone to abuse. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party has demonstrated its institutional weakness, becoming hostage to its ultra-libertarian wing and arriving at public health policies erratically and often too late.
The larger lesson is clear. If we want the best of capitalism and less of the worst, we must build institutions in our economy, our society and our democracy that commit through their constitutions, from business to university, to uphold the values that are cherished: equality, equity, universality, transparency, societal obligation and sustainability. Indeed, in the face of the challenges of the 21st century – AI, net zero, scaling – large institutions are more important than ever. They will not emerge spontaneously from the markets and the functioning of capitalism. They must be created and sustained, the progressive project for decades to come.