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International Socialism, Spring 1961


John Lane

Export of Reformism


From International Socialism (1st series), No.4, Spring 1961, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Beyond the Welfare State
Gunnar Myrdal
Duckworth. 1960. 21s.

Myrdal sees the present relationship of rich countries to poor as a global class division. The Common Market is a rich men’s club. International capitalism is shown to have followed closely the stages of the national pattern, from laissez-faire liberalism through internecine and disintegrating competition to comprehensive power amalgamation.

Overestimating this useful but limited analogy, the author ignores the vital factor of class conflict within the rich countries themselves.

Myrdal makes some admirable recommendations. The West should assist the underdeveloped nations to plan their economies by the principles of co-operation and division of labour, both internally and amongst themselves. Aid should be increased and directed to building self-sustaining growth. Cash gifts are comparatively unhelpful, especially in a context of unfavourable trade terms and of primary producers bearing the burden of Western recessions.

But it is not recognized that these urgent recommendations cannot be implemented by present-day Western capitalism, which can adjust to granting cash subsidies but not to encouraging workers’ co-operatives. The best elements in the underdeveloped nations will reject the advice of bourgeois economists, and seek new patterns of growth which do not require a ruling elite, capitalist or Stalinist. For Myrdal, saving the rest of the world from starving is morally obligatory, but he points out that it is also in the long-term self-interest of the Western countries to stabilize the world situation. This is again the analogy with the stabilization of contemporary capitalism by the growth of workers’ consuming power. This whole attitude to the Western countries is an extension of the nation of ‘countervailing power’ as the final expression of the Labour movement. Our democracy has its deeper foundation in the spread of participation, initiative and influence through the vast infrastructure of interest organisations (p.187). (At least Strachey’s phrase admitted that something needed countervailing.) Again, the decentralisation of the making and implementation of public policies is approved (p.35). Yet, at an entirely different stage of the argument (p.81), he recognizes the marginal nature of the ‘decisions’ which the ‘infra-structure’ is allowed to ‘disperse’:

‘As (the individual’s) objective knowledge of the national community in which he lives is improved, he will not be misled by the power oligarchy. He will reform taxation and everything else ... knowledge will make us free’.

But if Myrdal’s knowledge of our power oligarchy is such as to make us free, his complacency in extending our present society to the peoples of the underdeveloped world will surely make them slaves? The West’s enlightened assistance is required in ‘building up an international capital market’ (p.184) and we are reminded of the ‘scope for increased direct or entrepreneurial private investments’. In self-defense, the author admits that, in his description of Western democracy, ‘Many will find that ... I have been describing more what is possible than what is the actual reality’ (p.40). Again, the concession to truth is less prominent than the analysis it contradicts.

The contradictions also appear in the numerous revealing digressions. ‘The future is continually our own choice ... There is no blind destiny ruling history’ (p.168). Myrdal makes it clear that he regards this as the direct opposite of Marxism. But ‘disentanglement of the colonial economic enclave structures in the underdeveloped countries is an irresistible historic process’ (p.197) – a recognition of the ‘destiny ruling history’ in the best Marxist tradition. He recognizes the dynamic powers of the ideals of liberty and equality, which ‘gain strength all the time by being increasingly realised’ (p.112) and which will increasingly balk at the inadequacy of his ‘infrastructure’. Again, in seeking an explanation for the apathy of Americans towards ‘participation’, he dismisses the size and comparative youth of the country and the mobility of the population and emerges triumphant with the only possible solution remaining – the heterogeneity of the American population!

The contradictions stem- from a failure to distinguish between those goals of the Labour movement which can be achieved by ‘countervailing power’ and those which demand a revolutionary solution. In the first category are increases in real wages and improvements in welfare by marginal pressure: in the second, the dispersal of real decisions and the society of equals. Myrdal’s analysis is powerful indictment of the narrow nationalism of the Social Democratic parties. His deductions show that he shares with them horizons limited to the concept of collective bargaining.

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