- A New Version of Triumphalism
Eric A. Posner and E. Glen Weyl
Princeton University Press
368 Pages; Cloth, $29.95
Are we all capitalists now? When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, many capitalists, including quite a few in the Soviet Union who would go on to be exemplary oligarchs, saw a much more open road to globalization and the expansion of "free" market nostrums. Margaret Thatcher, who had resigned as UK Prime Minister the year before, often used the old Herbert Spencer slogan, "There is no alternative," to describe the preeminence of market forces against socialist and communist delusions. Francis Fukuyama famously declared an end to history itself, an endgame as liberal democracy, which, while hardly an endorsement of Thatcher's authoritarian populism, was often read to underline that radical alternatives were neither possible nor necessary. Certainly, there was evidence of triumphalism in the nineties, as "told you so" capitalists got busy plundering at greater scales and intensity (including capitalists in China and India), but there were significant contraindications too, particularly around the US version of capitalist democracy, and then a whole host of crises seemed to follow. It is a complicated story, but by the time Alan Greenspan offered his thoughts on "irrational exuberance" five years beyond the death of the Soviet Union, the victory of capitalism felt less secure, and five years beyond that, after the bursting of the dot com bubble and the felling of the twin towers, the narrative was returned for serious editing.
Today, this document (symptomatic of both civilization and barbarism in Walter Benjamin's thesis) is getting somewhat tatty from revision, and even Fukuyama copiously wrote over his formulations so that, as Louis Menand pithily puts it, the end of history is delayed. Indeed, while it would take more space than here to fathom adequately the revenge of history buried in this palimpsest, let us say we are in a golden period of geopolitical and geo-economic reflection. Now, the most immediate conditions for such rethinking are the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the "Arab Spring" in 2011 and its aftermath, and a resurgence of right-wing populism that has produced all sorts of historical reinvention and opposition.
One key theme for the revisionists is inequality since untrammeled capitalism seems to produce inordinate amounts of it. Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) is probably the most famous recent liberal critique addressing the pitfalls of capitalism (although without the dialectical élan of Marx's diagnosis under the same title). In their contribution, Eric A. Posner and E. Glen Weyl use some of Piketty's research but significantly up the ante regarding remedies and methodology. Indeed, compared to some of the recent attempts to rejig the socioeconomic antinomies of capitalism (including Branko Milanovic's Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization  and Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World ), Radical Markets is refreshing on a number of levels. While there is little that is new in their characterizations of the crises in the liberal order, few would expect the suggestions they detail by way of response. For instance, the answer to property privatization run wild is, in their estimation, partial common ownership, a balance of investment and allocative efficiency that keeps property in play. Value, in this system, is self-declared, as is the tax on such property ("common ownership self-assessed tax," for which they use an acronym, COST), and this applies to both individuals and businesses. The evaluations are public, which in principle annuls rather long-standing and "creative" traditions in capitalist history regarding value and tax. In this system, value and tax are overdetermined by the public nature of the market, in which bidding (an auction logic that is not beyond question) constantly rationalizes exchange and alleviates barriers to trade. In effect, Gordon Gekko would have to give up on greed because self-declared variations from true value would quickly be remedied by auction efficiencies (essentially, he would...