Doing capitalism differently?

Professor Mariana Mazzucato is a heterodox economist at the UCL some way from Marxism but she shares with Marxists recognition of the importance of “value” in economic analysis. In neoclassical economics, the kind they currently teach in universities, a marginalist approach is adopted and value is synonymous with markets and market prices. For Marxists, value is the labour time consumed in producing a commodity, whether directly or through the consumption of other commodities in its manufacture.

Professor Mazzucato argues in an article in the Guardian today that neoclassical economics goes a long way to explaining the mess the world finds itself in today and the Covid-19 pandemic will provide an opportunity to abandon it and do capitalism differently . Since the 1980’s, she argues, it has resulted in: weakened institutions like the NHS that are needed to respond to crises; a loss of confidence in what governments can achieve; the destruction of the social safety net; and growing inequality.

There was, however, no golden age prior to the 1980s, just a brief period after the War when the mere existence of the USSR required western capitalists to treat their workers a little better.

Professor Mazzucato believes capitalism can be reformed provided governments

• invest in and, if necessary, create institutions to prevent and manage future crises.
• co-ordinate research and development, steering them to “public health goals”.
• structure public-private partnerships to ensure “both citizens and the economy benefit”.
• attach conditions to bail outs of private business to ensure that the firms we save with public money become part of a new economy delivering lower carbon emissions and “investing in workers”.

A version of “soft capitalism” that incorporated these features would certainly be a great improvement on the current version, but it ain’t gonna happen. Capitalism is a system whose sole purpose is the accumulation of capital. Until it is itself overturned, all obstacles that impede this accumulation will be swept away. When the current crisis is over, public institutions like the NHS that restrict capital accumulation will continue to be under-funded and undermined; private sector R&D will continue to be driven by profit, not social need; public-private partnerships will continue to rip off workers; and, while there are still hydrocarbons left in the ground that can be extracted and burnt at a profit, CO2 levels will continue to rise. This is how capitalism works. The only solution is a social revolution that ends it.