There was a surprising headline in the Daily Telegraph yesterday: ‘Waitrose boss Mark Price says Britain should turn its back on capitalism.’ Quite what Price was advocating as the alternative isn’t clear from the article. Maybe, as he leaves the grocer, he has his own version of The Little Red Book in mind.
But reading between the lines Price was, as is his custom, trumpeting the engaged virtues of the John Lewis ownership and operating method. And it’s true that many businesses envy the strength of the JLP model.
But I don’t think that the self-described Chubby Grocer was advocating either storming the Bastille, a Year Zero Pol Pot style return to the fields or taking a lead from Hugo Chavez. Business is certainly beset with trust issues at the moment. And it’s not just business - politics, sport are all in the mire. But unless another viable socio-economic system is coming down the pipeline, capitalism remains the best we’ve got.
It is a system built on and fraught with tensions. People do daft things like taking out mortgages they cannot afford. Few purchases are entirely rational. At capitalism's heart lies risk. We cannot be carried from the cradle to the grave without stuff going wrong. As Gore Vidal said, it is not enough for you to succeed, others must fail. So Morrisons may well fail while Lidl succeeds.
It’s worth remembering a few things. The FTSE and Dow Jones companies of 2015 are a good deal more plain-dealing and straight than were in the 1960s, never mind the days of the robber barons of late 19th century USA. (They are also far more transparent that what is on offer in China.) This is the case for two reasons. Firstly, company and consumer law are far more mature now than they were then. There are pretty sophisticated checks and balances. Clearly, however, these failed to prevent the events of 2008 and may do so again
Secondly, consumers aren’t daft. When buyers have a bad time with providers of goods and services, the huge advantage of a capitalist - as opposed to a socialist - setup is that you can choose another supplier. Thus there may well be quite a few folk currently buying BMWs and Toyotas rather than VWs. It’s true that changing your bank isn’t quite so straightforward, but even in financial services things are on the move with challengers slowly gaining traction.
I watched good old Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s programme about food waste the other night. I first wrote about this subject more than 20 years ago because it angers me that we still behave in such selfish, unsustainable ways. Like Jamie Oliver on school food this campaign will have an effect because it is right and sensible.
Things will improve on food waste, not despite capitalism but because of it. In Russia or China, Oliver and Fearnley-Whittingstall could be sent to a (artisan sea) salt mine. You could see that Waitrose - whose bins round the back of one of their stores were prised open by a pair of Dumpster Divers to reveal all sorts of highly edible goodies - were embarrassed by what was revealed. They will do something about it because an open media and shaming works.
I’m an optimist for capitalism because, nothwithstanding their many faults, markets maintain pressure on otherwise complacent suppliers (although they also place hideous pressure on supermarket suppliers, often leading to injustice and waste). So capitalism is not going to be cast onto Marx’s scrapheap of history just yet.