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You've Never Had It So Bad...Honest By: Paul Ormerod
Times Higher Education Supplement | Friday, December 17, 2004

Parecon: Life after Capitalism
By Michael Albert
311 pages, $21.00

Verso Books, 2003
London, England

Michael Albert claims to be offering an alternative to capitalism built on values such as solidarity, equity, diversity and democratic control. The cover of the book attracts eulogies from Noam Chomsky and other luminaries of the anti-globalisation left.

The content and intellectual level of this book are conveyed quite clearly by the following extract: "We decry Stalinist Russia as horrific in its authoritarian subordination of the many to the few, but the capitalist workplace is quite similar... and the degree of regimentation is, if anything, more severe". The book will be of interest to those who really believe that the people of Britain in 2004 are more oppressed than those in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Everyone else should simply find it full of rubbish, ranging from the merely to the completely and totally inane.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect is its profoundly anti-scientific approach. The tremendous advances that human civilisation has made in the past few centuries are founded firmly on the empirical mode of thought. The advocates of participatory economics eschew such bourgeois niceties. Albert rises above the vulgar need to supply evidence in favour of his claims and relies on mere assertion. Worse, many of his central claims are patently false.

On the opening page, for example, he states that "hunger accompanies capitalism worldwide". In fact, the exact opposite is true. Until the advent of capitalism, most people in human history lived close to starvation levels. In modern times, death from starvation is a distinguishing feature of anti-capitalist societies. Albert asserts confidently that "capitalist globalisation produces poverty, ill health and shortened life spans". Again, in reality, life expectancy has increased dramatically almost everywhere. The only exceptions are sub-Saharan Africa and, temporarily, the countries of the former Soviet Union.

One could go on. Albert claims that capitalism leads inevitably to widening disparities of income and wealth. Yet in Britain and America, for example, these are far more equitably distributed that they were 100 years ago. He makes the elementary mistake of equating the turnover of companies with the national output of an economy.

One of Albert's strictures is that capitalism destroys diversity and that global markets impose a uniform set of products on everyone. The fact that his own book has been printed and translated into 20 languages seems itself to belie his assertion.

Capitalism is far from perfect, which makes it easy to criticise. But from a scientific perspective, in terms of improving the human lot it is the best system so far invented. Anyone with a remotely scientific mind who manages to struggle through this book will be more convinced than ever of the merits of the capitalist system.

Paul Ormerod is a director of Volterra Consulting.

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