All You Can Eat

By Linda McQuaig

Surveying the economic changes that led to the final extermination of the English peasantry in the eighteenth century, the historian Eric Hobsbawm describes farmers as faced with a “distinctly hard bargain.” The old traditional system, though inefficient and oppressive, was still a system of “considerable social certainty and, at a most miserable level of some economic security; not to mention that it was hallowed by custom and tradition.” Capitalism, on the other hand, was hardly an unmixed blessing for those who lived on the land. “Altogether the introduction of liberalism on the land was like some sort of silent bombardment which shattered the social structure he had always inhabited and left nothing in its place but the rich: a solitude called freedom.”

It was an important moment, marking the thaw of the “great frozen ice-cap of the world’s traditional agrarian systems and rural social relations” in order to free “the fertile soil of economic growth.” And it is this same historical background that is front and center in Linda McQuaig’s new book All You Can Eat.

What McQuaig is after this time out is the “new capitalism,” a force she identifies with the extreme form of liberalism that has dominated the world economy since roughly 1980 (product of the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions). This new capitalism (along with the “new market economy,” the “new materialism”, the “new greed” and other things) is contrasted to both the old period of restrained, regulated capitalism of the early post-war period and the pre-capitalist economy of England.

In making her case McQuaig draws heavily on the work of economic historian Karl Polanyi, whose work The Great Transformation describes the triumph of capitalism and market economies. Society, defined as people working together for common goals (that is, a common good), takes a back seat under capitalism to Homo Economicus: the totally selfish materialist assumed by neo-classical economics. People and nature are turned into the commodities of labour and real estate. The right to private property becomes the most sacred and inviolable of all human rights.

McQuaig’s point in introducing so much historical material is to show (after Polanyi) that there is nothing natural or inevitable about capitalism and a market economy. Human beings are not limited to narrow considerations of self-interest, but are primarily social animals whose natural interest is in preserving their communities and the environment. It is capitalism and the “free market” that have to be enforced by law. As Polanyi has it: “While laissez-faire economy was the product of deliberate state action, subsequent restrictions on laissez-faire started in a spontaneous way. Laissez-faire was planned; planning was not.” Historically, what we have wanted is protection from the market, an institution capable (in Polanyi’s words) of “annihilating the human and natural substance of society,” and one which, left alone, “would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness.”

All You Can Eat is both a highly readable survey of some very general points about human nature and a welcome effort at bringing Polanyi up-to-date. But, like McQuaig’s other books, it sometimes relies too heavily on rhetoric to make its points without presenting enough factual data. A stronger case, for example, needs to be made for the failure of IMF and World Bank policies in the Third World. And while she does her best to both popularize and personalize her account, as she did with James Tobin and the Tobin tax in The Cult of Impotence, she also overstates her case on occasion. It is simply not true, for one thing, that Polanyi’s work “has been largely ignored in mainstream circles.” I would imagine The Great Transformation is a far more popular work today, outside of a handful of right-wing think-tanks, than Frederich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

The age of transformation was also the beginning of modern politics. Oddly enough, using the language of the day McQuaig would be considered an eighteenth-century Tory. The Whigs were the great merchants and landowners who promoted laissez-faire economics, while the Tories stood for a traditional order based less on individual rights than on social responsibilities.

Both sides continue to think they are on the side of natural rights, a natural order and natural law. And they are both right. The real difference is in their view of what that nature is. McQuaig characterizes the Whig interpretation of nature as being dominated by lust and greed. That seems harsh, but then you have to wonder: Is it an assessment with which they would disagree?

Review first published online January 18, 2002.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: