Female factory workers in Shenzhen, China, Douglas Johnson
In 1923, the British House of Commons had what was termed “a great debate”: “Socialism or Capitalism: Which?” Not so long ago, books were regularly published on this thorny topic; but now, even on the left, enthusiasm for raising the issue has waned. One could cite many causes for socialism’s submergence, but among academics a key moment was the publication, in 1983, of Alec Nove’s The Economics of Feasible Socialism. Nove, a respected economic historian of the Soviet Union, reported the depressing details of failure after failure of communist economies, often able to function only because of extensive illegal black markets. The only hope he saw was for a form of market socialism. And that source of optimism became rather more muted, allowing for a mix of state, co-operative and private enterprise, by the time of Nove’s publication of a revised edition, entitled The Economics of Feasible Socialism Revisited, in 1991.
From the 1990s on, most commentators on the left have accepted that we simply do not know how to organise large-scale economic systems without a very significant role for the market to convey information and, somewhat more controversially, to provide incentives for individuals to act on that information. The challenge has been to show how markets can be combined with non-capitalist forms of organisation. And little here has been found generally convincing.
Against this background it is immensely refreshing to receive a volume called Capitalism, For and Against: A Feminist Debate, by Ann Cudd (for) and Nancy Holmstrom (against), both of whom have written extensively on related topics. The immediate context is the global economic crisis that started in 2009 and as I write shows little sign of lifting.
Capitalism, clearly, admits of various definitions, but perhaps the more important question is whether, in assessing whether or not capitalism is good or bad for women, we should take capitalism as it is currently found in the world, or an ideal form of capitalism, to be conjured from the theorist’s imagination. The weakest argument that could be made in defence of capitalism is that an ideal form of capitalism is preferable for women to actual forms of non-capitalism (whatever that turns out to be — we will return to that question shortly). The most adventurous would be to argue for actually existing capitalism in competition with the best theoretical models of alternatives. Between these extremes many other forms of comparison are possible, and part of the discussion between Cudd and Holmstrom is which comparison is the most meaningful.
But what, exactly, are we to compare capitalism with? Throughout the volume four candidates are discussed: traditional pre-capitalist societies; actual existing contemporary or recent socialist and communist societies; actual existing traditional societies; and models of ideal non-capitalism. In comparison with pre-capitalist societies and existing traditional societies, both authors, reasonably enough, agree that the emergence of advanced capitalism has been associated with many advances for women, in terms of life expectancy and health, freedom, opportunity including access to the job market and standard of living. Both authors agree that most capitalist countries still have far to go in terms of gender equality. And the condition of women is especially harsh in the industrialising countries recently joining the capitalist world, as we see in Southeast Asia.