Bastard Capitalism

Bastard Capitalism

Scarcely twenty years ago the capitalist system was, to all appearances, disintegrating—in England its symbol was Jarrow, “the town that was murdered,” its representative figure Montagu Norman, the sinister governor of the Bank of England who engineered the rise of unemployment and the fall of governments. Business was in disgrace, businessmen suspect, and business values held in almost universal contempt. “Profits,” complained Lord Chandos, “are without honor in our country.”

The upper classes shared in the disgrace. Frightened leaders of a contracting Empire, they had shown themselves, over two decades, astonishingly incompetent in the very functions—Diplomacy, Finance and Defense—where even their critics had credited them with a certain traditional “flair.” It was a sorry record and people concluded that the capitalist system could no longer work, nor the governing classes continue to govern. Their verdict, in the 1945 elections, seemed decisive:

A vote of censure [wrote Cyril Connolly in Horizon] on the shrewd, city-agent faux-bonhommes, a blow struck against the religion of money, it has given us a government who are “we” and not “they.”

The country, as Evelyn Waugh later remembered it, “seemed to be under enemy occupation.”

How are the fallen mighty! By the end of the fifties business had regained and even reinforced its hold on the country. The corporations stood unchallenged at the center of the economy, and around them clustered privilege, in new forms and old, which circumvented and finally reversed the post-war effort at income redistribution. Corporate profits took precedence over public welfare (as much money was spent on advertising as on scientific and industrial research, on packaging as on the government’s educational budget), and the machinery of government control—those parts which had not been dismantled— served to buttress rather than to diminish the power of the private sector. Profit was once more the dominant rationale of economic activity; competitive individualism—”getting on” and “getting ahead”—exalted again as the proper regulator of individual conduct and lever of social progress.