The choice for capitalism

Janan Ganesh
March 30, 2020

This year is the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s death and the 150th of Charles Dickens’s. Never spellbound by either (“The man can’t write worth a damn,” said the young Martin Amis, after one page of 1984), I was inclined to sit out all the commemorative rereading. And I did. But then the crisis of the day took me back to what one man wrote about the other.

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This year is the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s death and the 150th of Charles Dickens’s. Never spellbound by either (“The man can’t write worth a damn,” said the young Martin Amis, after one page of 1984), I was inclined to sit out all the commemorative rereading. And I did. But then the crisis of the day took me back to what one man wrote about the other.

More on that in a minute. First, you will notice the pandemic is putting large corporations through a sort of moral invigilation. Ones that rejig their factories to make hand sanitiser (LVMH) or donate their knowhow (IBM) are hailed. Ones that behave like skinflints (JD Wetherspoon, Britannia Hotels) are tarred and feathered.

Companies have to weigh how much discretionary help to give without flunking their narrow duty to survive and profit.

This is the stuff of Stakeholder Capitalism or Corporate Social Responsibility. The topic has been in the air all of my career. It has been given new urgency by events. It is the subject of much FT treatment.

And Orwell, I suspect, would see through it like glass.

In a 1940 essay (how spoilt we are for round-number anniversaries) he politely explodes the idea of Dickens as a radical, or even as a social reformer. His case is that, for Dickens, nothing is wrong with the world that cannot be fixed through individual conscience.

If only Murdstone were kinder to David Copperfield. If only all bosses were as nice as Fezziwig. That no one should have such awesome power over others in the first place goes unsaid by Dickens, and presumably unthought. And so his worldview, says Orwell, is “almost exclusively moral”.

What Orwell would resent is the unearned smugness, when more systemic answers are available

Dickens wants a “change of spirit rather than a change of structure”. He has no sense that a free market is “wrong as a system”. The French Revolution could have been averted had the Second Estate just “turned over a new leaf, like Scrooge”.

And so we have “that recurrent Dickens figure, the Good Rich Man”, whose arbitrary might is used to help out the odd grateful urchin or debtor. What we do not have is the Good Trade Unionist pushing for structural change. What we do not have is the Good Finance Minister redistributing wealth. There is something feudal about Dickens. The rich man in his castle should be nicer to the poor man at his gate, but each is in his rightful station.

You need not share Orwell’s ascetic socialism (I write this next to a 2010 Meursault) to see his point. And to see that it applies just as much to today’s economy.

Some companies are open to any and all options to serve the general good — except higher taxes and regulation. “I feel like I’m at a firefighters’ conference,” said the writer Rutger Bregman, at a Davos event about inequality that did not mention tax. “And no one is allowed to speak about water.”

What Orwell would hate about Stakeholder Capitalism is not just that it might achieve patchier results than the universal state. It is not even that it accords the powerful yet more power — at times, as we are seeing, over life and death. Under-resourced governments counting on private whim for basic things: it is a spectacle that should both warm the heart and utterly chill it.

No, what Orwell would resent, I think, is the unearned smugness. The halo of “conscience”, when more systemic answers are available via government. The halo that Dickens still wears. You can see it in the world of philanthropy summits and impact investment funds.

The double-anniversary of England’s most famous writers since Shakespeare meant little to me until the virus broke. All of a sudden, they serve as a neat contrast of worldviews. Dickens would look at the crisis and shame the corporates who fail to tap into their inner Fezziwig. Orwell would wonder how on earth it is left to their caprice in the first place.

The difference matters because, when all this is over, there is likely to be a new social contract. The mystery is whether it will be more Dickensian (in the best sense) or Orwellian (also in the best sense). That is, will it pressure the rich to give more to the commons or will it absolutely oblige them?

Email Janan at janan.ganeshft.com

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—Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020





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