BOOKS: Blessed are the rioters? Diane Coyle argues that IT and the New Economy can turn anti-capitalist protesters into empowered consumers. Richard Greenhalgh is sceptical

BOOKS: Blessed are the rioters? Diane Coyle argues that IT and the New Economy can turn anti-capitalist protesters into empowered consumers. Richard Greenhalgh is sceptical - Paradoxes of Prosperity: Why the New Capitalism benefits all; By Diane Coyle; Te

by RICHARD GREENHALGH, chairman of Unilever UK and is on the boardof the International Chamber of Commerce
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Paradoxes of Prosperity: Why the New Capitalism benefits all; By Diane Coyle; Texere; pounds 17.99

At the end of Animal Farm, Orwell depicts the ruling communist elite - the pigs - meeting their human opponents, who represent bourgeois democracy. To the wonder of the other animals spying on them, they are now indistinguishable - each and every one a rotten exploiter of the common people.

Don't be fooled by the subtitle of Diane Coyle's provocative new book. It is not capitalism that benefits all, but new capitalism. Far from defending multinationals or business generally, Coyle calls down a plague on both their houses - and, for good measure, the military, the education system and liberal democracy. Chapter headings such as 'The end of bureaucracy', or 'The corporate dinosaurs' give the flavour.

Coyle records the amusement of IMF delegates caught up in an anti-capitalist riot, when through the tear-gas they glimpsed a banner reading, 'World campaign against globalisation'. I suspect the laughter died a while ago - if not in Seattle or Davos, then at Gothenburg or Genoa.

The central thesis of the book is tersely expressed: 'If there is a New Economy, there is going to have to be a New Society and a New Politics, too.' Note the upper case: we are in the realm of Big Ideas.

The book stands or falls on one's acceptance of the concept of the New Economy. Coyle complains that the term was hijacked to cover the dot.com market. But when she sets off to track down the 'real New Economy' she never quite manages to bag the beast.

Every promising footprint or scent turns out to be capable of multiple interpretations. The New Economy is the Yeti of the capitalist system.

Luckily, no-one has to have faith in the New Economy. It is quite sufficient to accept the examples and statistics Coyle deploys to support the proposition that IT enjoys the same relationship to human history as the invention of writing, printing or electric power. Revolutionary.

Both the anti-globalisation protesters and their opposing elites are taking a thoroughly wrong-headed approach to a time of rapid and revolutionary change. However naive their aims, at least the protesters act unselfishly, if sometimes violently. Coyle is less tolerant of the efforts of elite groups to prop up outmoded education systems, go through the empty ritual of elections, and maintain inflexible corporate structures.

Here Coyle overreaches herself. As a 'corporate dinosaur' myself, my view is of a multinational - Unilever - engaged in a constant transformation of structures, brands, people management and corporate strategy. The bottom line is a powerful encouragement to change, flexibility and responsiveness.

Coyle acknowledges that business is at least ahead of state institutions: 'The voting patterns say government as it stands today is irrelevant.' As for the education system in the developed world, she simply rips it apart and dances on the corpse: centralist, unfit for purpose, deadening, uncreative.

As always, the least persuasive part of the book is the future-gazing. This is natural: I may not be able to match Coyle's knowledge of the past and present economy, but the future belongs to us all. Crudely, the book argues that the New Economy offers a historic opportunity - a leap towards mass affluence in which individuals will live as empowered consumers in a society based on increased individual trust and ultra-fast communications.

So the future might soon be sipping a Frappuccino outside your local Starbucks, in Pilot sunglasses and an Armani suit, feeling groovy. A more realistic view would maintain Lenin's succinct and chilling summary of the dynamic of human history: 'Who whom?'

But this is a fine book, powerfully argued, frequently convincing, always interesting. Coyle has lived up to her own claim that debate, argument and communication are essential to a workable future for human society by writing an interesting book about globalisation. Worth an award in itself.

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