Michael Kidron

Some Trees, No Wood

(Spring 1966)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.24, Spring 1966, pp.35-6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Modern Capitalism, The Changing Balance of Public and Private Power
Andrew Shonfield
Oxford University Press/Chatham House, 55s

The British Economy in 1975
W. Beckerman and Associates
Cambridge University Press/National Institute of Economic and Social Research, 50s

Postwar Economic Growth
Simon Kuznets
Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press;
London: Oxford University Press, 34s

Shonfield is a tireless advocate of economic growth and of the means to achieve it. He has also shown himself to be a step or two ahead of established opinion. His first book, British Economic Policy Since the War (Penguin, 1959), was amongst the earliest to condemn investments abroad as a diversion from necessary expansion at home; its thesis, watered down, is now Labour Government policy. His second book, The Attack on World Poverty (Chatto and Windus, 1960), located the prime danger to growth in backward countries in the thin spread of international aid amongst them, and advocated a concentration of resources on the most promising few. While this has not found official echo anywhere as yet, reality seems to be grimly overtaking the warning. Now, in Modern Capitalism, he returns to the theme in the context of the developed, western world.

He relates its patchy growth performance to its equally patchy deployment of available planning techniques and calls for their more consistent and general application. The broad theme is simple enough: growth now requires planning; only governments can plan on a national scale; to do so they need to adapt their structures, workings and in some cases their basic assumptions to the job. For in every case, state planning methods have grown piece-meal, as a series of unique ad hoc responses to particular problems, such as balance-of-payments crises, sharp business fluctuations, the formation of the Common Market or whatever. If, here and there, planning has assumed a coherent shape, its logic is to be found in the circumstances that gave rise to it, rather than in any a priori, consciously-chosen programme. But that won’t do any more. If current opportunities for expansion are to be exploited, planning must be practised consciously and publicly. Shonfield illustrates his theme lavishly. He details the development and practice of the conspiracy to plan between the French civil service and big business, contrasts it with the British tradition of apologetic, non-specific Government intervention in the economy for short-term ends, the German blend of centralised financial control in the private sector and active, though verbally self -effacing, Government, the chaotically impotent decentralisation in the US administration and many other national ‘planning styles’ (Italian, Dutch, Austrian, Swedish). He does so historically in the best sense, analysing the uniqueness of the circumstances for each step towards planning in each national milieu. Given his proved sensitivity to the onset of official modes, we can expect planning initiatives to multiply in Western countries.

But that is as far as it goes. To pretend that this Handbook of Contemporary Planning Practice in Some Major Developed Orthodox Capitalist Countries is an analysis of modern capitalism is nonsense. At the very least it shows an extraordinary lapse in realism. 450-odd pages on capitalism could not ignore the arms economy. and its effect on the system; or the Cold War; or the colonial revolution. Yet this is what Shonfield has done.

Even within his chosen field his beam is strangely narrow: he picks out the inescapable surge towards planning, the trend to collaboration between big business and the state, the need – in these conditions – to plan and think in terms of mighty individual firms rather than industries (as is done for example, in the Labour Government’s National Plan), but nowhere does he even hint at the possibility of conflict between international firms and national planning authorities. De Gaulle’s delphic utterances are more informative than Shonfield here.

His beam is narrow in another respect too, although more predictably. For him planning is not only essential for growth but also essentially for growth. That planning can have something to do with democratic control over the economy, can have political significance, is immaterial. Of course, he recognizes that the particular forms of political democracy we now enjoy might need to be adapted, but only in order to regain ground lost to the planning conspiracy. There is not the slightest suspicion of an alternative form of social organization in which ‘to plan or not’ has ceased being a question, in which planning is the only conceivable mode of democratic control over society, and in which rates of growth have ceased to be the counters of competition, the driving compulsions they now are, but a residual problem for a society aware and in control of itself.

Shonfield is joined in his growth fetishism by Beckerman and his associates who have produced a massive feasibility study of Britain’s economic expansion over the next decade. It is an incredibly interesting work for the specialist in the use it makes of forecasting methods, in its analysis of basic economic trends or, simply, as a powerhouse of information. For trade unionists it is important in showing how crucial ‘incomes policy’ is thought to be amongst the draftsmen of economic policy. But above all it demonstrates to socialists what an extraordinary inversion overcomes academic economists when dealing with the dynamics of their system. Growth, we are told in Chapter 2 and throughout, is a product basically of demand expectations, notably in the export sector. Since Britain s export sector is slack and business’s demand expectations modest, growth needs to be induced ‘artificially.’ This is possible but it has to be planned. So growth can also be a product of something other than demand expectations, perhaps the planners’ view of what might happen in the absence of growth, or, to revert to the Marxist tradition, a product of the competitive pressures engendered in an anarchic (world) market where the division of labour is unplanned and productive resources controlled by a minority.

Kuznets’ four lectures differ from the others in being built around analysis not advocacy – and are the better for it. The form a broad canvas, historically, geographically and’ intellectually, in which the nation state and aggressive nationalism are drawn boldly as vehicles for economic growth and the role of such non-economic factors as knowledge is stressed. A study of the post-war period suggests that the boom of the last decade-and-a-half might be drying up with the close of a long business cycle (here Kuznets can join Kondratieff as a patron saint of ‘Trotskyist’ doomsters) and the whole ends with a muted appeal to seek reality outside the narrow strip illumined by academic economics. If there is a major flaw in this original, densely argued book it is the absence of any analysis of its key concept – the nation state – and of the way nation relates to class rule.


Last updated on 19.10.2006