Book Review: Capitalism, For and Against: A Feminist Debate
In 1923, the British House of Commons had what was termed “a great debate”: “Socialism or Capitalism: Which?” Not so long ago, books were regularly published on this thorny topic; but now, even on the left, enthusiasm for raising the issue has waned. One could cite many causes for socialism’s submergence, but among academics a key moment was the publication, in 1983, of Alec Nove’s The Economics of Feasible Socialism. Nove, a respected economic historian of the Soviet Union, reported the depressing details of failure after failure of communist economies, often able to function only because of extensive illegal black markets. The only hope he saw was for a form of market socialism. And that source of optimism became rather more muted, allowing for a mix of state, co-operative and private enterprise, by the time of Nove’s publication of a revised edition, entitled The Economics of Feasible Socialism Revisited, in 1991.
From the 1990s on, most commentators on the left have accepted that we simply do not know how to organise large-scale economic systems without a very significant role for the market to convey information and, somewhat more controversially, to provide incentives for individuals to act on that information. The challenge has been to show how markets can be combined with non-capitalist forms of organisation. And little here has been found generally convincing.
Against this background it is immensely refreshing to receive a volume called Capitalism, For and Against: A Feminist Debate, by Ann Cudd (for) and Nancy Holmstrom (against), both of whom have written extensively on related topics. The immediate context is the global economic crisis that started in 2009 and as I write shows little sign of lifting. While the context may be new, the issues are not, and the lively and well-written contributions draw on and deploy many arguments and distinctions familiar within contemporary political philosophy, set out in a pleasingly non-technical fashion. Hence this book could serve as an introduction to a range of contemporary debates, not only concerning the definition and fortunes of capitalism, but also the analysis of freedom, the justification of private property, and the difficulties of collective rationality, among other key issues. The book follows the standard format for the Cambridge University Press ‘For and Against’ series in which it features: each author presents their argument independently, and then replies to the other’s contribution.