The Blurb On The Back:
Deep new rifts are tearing apart the fabric of Britain and other Western societies: thriving cities versus the provinces, the highly skilled elite versus the less-educated, wealthy versus developing countries. So far these rifts have been answered only by the stale politics of left vs right. We have heard many critiques of capitalism but no one has laid out a realistic way to fix it, until now.
In this passionate and polemical book, Paul Collier outlines original and ethical ways of healing these rifts with the cool head of pragmatism, rather than the fervour of ideological revivalism. He reveals how he has personally lived across these three divides, moving from working class Sheffield to hyper-competitive Oxford, and working between Britain and Africa. Drawing on his own solutions as well as ideas from some of the world’s greatest social scientists, he shows us how to save capitalism from itself.
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Oxford University. This centrist polemic is smug, politically naive and offers weirdly paternalistic “solutions” that fail to tackle the structural issues responsible for the rifts in society that he professes to want to resolve. As a lawyer, I also found his constant digs at lawyers to be dull and uninformed and I was really uncomfortable with the revelations about his family.
I picked this up because I had read and had highly rated REFUGE: TRANSFORMING A BROKEN REFUGEE SYSTEM, which Collier co-wrote with Alexander Betts so was interested to read what he had to say about capitalism generally. To be fair, this book was published in 2018 and it’s possible that had I read it then – i.e. before Brexit took effect and before the COVID-19 pandemic – I would have reacted to it differently than now. However, in 2022 when public services are failing, there’s a cost of living crisis and a real possibility of energy blackouts, many of Collier’s solutions for healing the rifts within Britain (among other Western democracies) just seems laughably out of touch.
I get that this is a polemic and therefore it’s going to make sweeping assertions but there is a real complacency to some of what Collier puts forward here. I was particularly uncomfortable by the way he uses his cousin (who went to the same school as him but apparently never reached her potential) as an argument for how working class people are let down. There is zero consideration of whether this was down to gender expectations at the time they were at school as much as class expectations.
This complacency comes through again in one of his “solutions” which is to offer parenting lessons to those from less well off backgrounds. I found that really insulting – the idea that working class or less educated people don’t know how to be parents just reeks of privilege and I find it interesting that he sees this as a lower socio-economic issue when surely more damage is done to children from rich parents who outsource their care to nannies and boarding schools? It’s telling that he talks about mothers making bad decisions about the men who father their children, but is less interested in how men can be taught to be more sexually and parentally responsible.
He favours taxation of workers in big cities to enable redistribution to “broken” cities but there’s no real suggestions on how this would work and while he talks about targeting highly skilled labour, surely the issue in the big cities is absentee oligarchs and foreign owners who take up housing stock and push up prices? He talks about taxes on financial transactions but offers no proposals. He suggests also taxes on private litigation to reduce the volume of disputes and the rents that lawyers make from them. There is zero consideration on how that affects access to justice and while his one example is a libel claim, he doesn’t propose limiting it to just a particular type of claim, making it a rather pointless suggestion.
In fact Collier’s attitude to lawyers generally was tediously uninformed. As a lawyer myself, I am all too aware of the foibles and weaknesses in the profession and there are many criticisms that can be legitimately made about it. Unfortunately Collier is one of those academics who think that unless you are doing “human rights law” then you’re not bringing value to society. He’s particularly scathing about contract lawyers, which is hilarious given that contracts are the bedrock of the economy he wants to make more productive and it’s the failure to have well drafted contracts that leads to the types of dispute he is also scathing of. All in all, it made it difficult for me to take anything he had to say on the topic seriously, which in turn made me question his opinions on other topics that appear outside his wheel house.
All in all, I just struggled to engage with this because he’s not really tackling structural issues here and it’s the structural failures of capitalism that have led to the polarisation that Collier is so worried about. Ultimately this book’s hardcore centrism might have resonated back in the New Labour days of 2000 but is completely out of touch with the problems of the 2020s.