Mind Your I’s and Q’s

Book Review of Capitalism and Social Progress: the Future of Society in A Global Economy, by Phillip Brown & Hugh Lauder (Palgrave, $67.95)
Listener 16 February, 2002.

Keywords Political Economy & History; Labour Studies

The book recalls ‘in the aftermath of the Second World War the state emerged with a new mandate to create greater economic security and opportunity, where all would see their slice of the cake increase even if some were getting more than others.’ It was a ‘“Golden era” of western capitalism … built on “walled” economies of massed-produced goods and services which offered a decent family wage to low-skilled workers. … Much of the prosperity in this period depended on a political settlement between the state, employers and workers.’

The broad details of the era applied as much to New Zealand as to other Western economies, And as here, throughout the West it broke down in the 1970s. The authors suggest a couple of reasons. Partly there were inherent contradictions: the era spoke of equality but it treated genders unequally and barely recognised minorities. The authors note the structural change in the 1970s’ world economy, with lower true profitability and slower productivity growth. (I would add some critical technological changes and the social diversification arising from affluence.)

The breakdown led to an intensification of globalisation. There are many books which tell this story. This book’s interest derives from the two professors of education distinctive perceptions about future possibilities. The ‘Golden era’ cannot be recreated. Instead we need to harness the ‘forces of knowledge-driven capitalism’. They particularly emphasise ‘collective intelligence’, which is ‘integral to the reinvention of society’.

There is a fashion for combining two grandiose words to give the impression of a deeply significant concept which is as shallow as the writer. (Most purveyors of ‘social capital’ have little understanding of the meaning of ‘capital’.) ‘Collective intelligence’ would appear to be such a phrase, except the writers are expert, and earlier in the book set down much of the professional understandings on the underlying notions. They argue we must ‘reclaim “intelligence” from the grip of the eugenics movement and from its impoverished representation in the form of IQ tests. … The idea of intelligence in the Golden era is redundant in the world in which we live.’ It now has to encompass the artistic and emotional dimensions of human capability, the ability to solve problems, to think critically and systematically about the social and material worlds, to apply new skills and techniques, to empathize and to have personal skills needed to communicate and live along side one another.

The ‘collective’ comes from the author’s rejection of individualistic accounts of the human condition. ‘Private troubles felt by people require public solutions, which cannot be resolved without collaboration with family, friends, neighbour, co-workers or fellow citizens. In post-industrial societies it is the collective intelligence of families, communities, companies and society at large, which will determine the quality of life as well as competitiveness.’

This leads to a stimulating discussion of the learning state and the high-skills economy. What a pity that the authors were not asked to speak to last year’s Knowledge Wave Conference (especially Hugh Lauder, who was a New Zealand university teacher and also published poetry here). It would have had a more focussed outcome if they had.

Subjects Education, Growth & Innovation, Labour Studies