Glossing Over the Problems

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Review of 'The World We're In', Will Hutton, Little Brown £17.99

Will Hutton's new book is a hymn of praise to Europe. Despite supporting the US war in Afghanistan, Hutton does not like the way the US has become an unchallenged 'global hyperpower' since the end of the Cold War. In particular he does not like the way the new US dominance is politically shaped by US conservatism. 'The most salient political event of our times has been the rise of the American right over the last 25 years and the collapse of American liberalism,' writes Hutton.

He mourns the end of the eras of Roosevelt's postwar New Deal, of Kennedy and of Johnson's 'Great Society' and war on poverty. Their replacement by US conservatism--which is broader and more ideological than just neoliberalism--is not detached from changes in the US economy and Hutton provides quite a readable account of downsizing, flexible labour markets and the vast inequality which makes the US today the most unequal society in the industrialised west.

The dominance of the US economy means globalisation largely has an American face. But Hutton rejects the view that the world must emulate the US's economic and social model. The only force capable of challenging the US's global hegemony is Europe--which is cast as a potential rival superpower and as a potentially humane force for good. Europe, for Hutton, could build a benign world order--in alliance with US liberalism. And here the problems begin in the form of (mostly) uncritical idealisation of Europe.

Why is Europe potentially better, according to Hutton?

This is because Europe embodies ancient and shared values of obligations of the propertied to society and the centrality of the public realm and government to 'a happy community'. So crucially a Huttonesque Europe would value the role of the state and the public sphere and would thus be capable of renewing citizenship and participation.

Hutton's view is rather like the arguments put by liberal academic David Held, who has written widely about globalisation. Held argues for what he calls a 'cosmopolitan democracy' which would raise western liberal democracy to the global level through widespread reform of existing global institutions. Hutton seeks such institutional reform, led by Europe, to create, for example, a World Financial Authority to oversee financial institutions and a World Competition Authority to police private corporate power. These bodies, combined with the euro as the only force which could challenge the dollar, could change the relationship between the industrialised world and the less developed world.

Like all liberal critiques of capitalism, class exploitation is either rubbed out completely or quickly glossed over. So Hutton praises three different companies--Volkswagen, Michelin and Nokia--as examples of three very different models of capitalism to be found within Europe which are all, for him, successful and vibrant and better than their US counterparts.

Thanks to the anti-capitalist movement there are now many much more scathing accounts of the crimes of neoliberalism and the behaviour of multinational corporations--whether American, European or otherwise. These accounts seek much more radical solutions to the problems facing the globe and try to contribute, in practice, to building global solidarity as an alternative rather than hoping naively for vast global institutional reform.

Hutton's new book rather pales in comparison with this. His earlier book The State We're In hit a chord with those angry and frustrated about the demise of public services in Britain. But the rise of the anti-capitalist movement means that now his analysis has moved to the global level, Hutton has rather lost his bite.