Sunday, 7 October 2012

Crony Capitalism - the convenient explanation for our evasive times

In Spain they suffer from amiguismo. Greece is fatally afflicted with rousfeti. Japan has never outgrown the effects of keiretsu. In South Korea chaebols have been a perennial blight.

Beyond the superficialities of debt, bank collapse, and government bail-outs, these are the real causes of economic distress. In a London Observer article last week, John Carlin explained the Spanish “infantile” attitude to work and rampant “amiguismo” – “friendism” – were the “root cause” of economic collapse and an unemployment rate in the mid-20s.

In English, this malaise is known as crony capitalism.

The “Spanish disease”, Carlin said, is an economic system where advancement depends on who you know. Greece is similarly benighted by “rousfeti”, which means according to a 2011 BBC article, “political favours and cronyism”.

In Italy, so says the Wall Street Journal, even emergency room doctors get promotion on the basis of their political affiliation. Apparently, “one routinely finds highly intelligent people employed in menial jobs while mediocre people often hold distinguished positions,” (which actually sounds like bog standard capitalism).

Like a receding tide, economic recession has merely exposed these countries’ integral failings, the argument runs.

Crony capitalism and Europe’s economic miracle

History is good at placing contemporary explanations in perspective and Tony Judt’s 2010 Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 systematically exposes the truth about crony capitalism. Unfortunately there is scant solace for believers in the cancerous effects of crony capitalism. Because if history is any guide, as far as capitalist economic health is concerned, the cronier the better.

Judt explains how Austria was governed in the 1950s and ‘60s, a system known as “Proporz”. “At almost every level jobs were filled, by agreement, with candidates proposed by the one of the two dominant parties [People’s party and Socialists],” he writes. “Over time, this system of ‘jobs for the boys’ reached deep in Austrian life, forming a chain of interlocking patrons and clients who settled virtually every argument either by negotiation or else through the exchange of favours and appointment.”

Judt is clear this arrangement didn’t just apply to public services and the media, but “much of the economy” as well.

In Italy, the story was similar, possibly even more extreme. “Jobs and favours were created and delivered proportional to local, regional, national political clout,” Judt tells us “…. From the point of view of Economic Man the system was grossly wasteful, and inimical to private initiative and fiscal efficiency.”

What were baleful economic effects of this grossly wasteful system? Well, in Austria, Judt relates, per capita (per head) GDP rose, between 1950 and 1973, from $3,731 to $11,308. GDP per head in France grew by 150%. “The Italian economy, starting from a lower base, did even better.” Spain, then labouring under the time-warp of Franco’s clerico-Fascist dictatorship as well as doubtless rampant amiguismo, saw GDP increase from $2,397 to $8,739. These were, for all their sclerotic cronyism, “golden years” economically.

At the end of the twentieth century, in the wake of the East Asian economic crisis, the same underlying “reasons” were uncovered. And they made as much sense then. South Korea chaebols – family-owned corporations where “the managers are brothers and cousins and in-laws who steer business one another’s way and cover up mistakes”, according to the New York Times in 1998 – were blamed for an “outmoded form of crony capitalism”.

But this outmoded system had, prior to the 1990s, produced the highest rate of economic growth of any country in the world for three decades.

Infantile attitude to work

In his Observer article, Carlin says the Spanish “infantile” attitude to work is behind the country’s dreadful economic situation. Young Spaniards, he says, have flocked to London, where “pure merit” is rewarded. But, disaster! A similar malaise is eating through the work ethic in the UK. Most people, according to the new breed of Tory MPs, would rather spend half the day in bed obsessing about celebrities, that do a decent day’s wealth creation. This regrettable attitude explains poor productivity. Britons should be more like hard working East Asians, who doubtless have been victorious by now in banishing the predations of crony capitalism.

The trouble is, celebrity obsessions aside, things were even worse in the past. To return to Tony Judt, Britain’s economy, in the post-war era, suffered from the blights of innumerable craft unions each demanding separate pay rate and demarcating activities, terrible labour relations, and mediocre management that would not invest in research and development.

But despite these impediments, economic growth was much more successful. The British economy grew at an average annual rate of 3% between 1950 and ’73. After 1980, when the power of trade unions was destroyed, the rate has been 2.2%. Productivity growth – output per worker – has been 1.9% between 1980 and 2008. Between 1961 and 1973 – an era of awful labour relations and frequent strikes – it was 2.95%. In the three day week of 1974 production hardly declined at all.

Dissolve the people and elect another-ism

As far as I can see, three conclusions are possible from an honest appraisal of this comparative economic performance. One, attitudes to work and crony capitalism make absolutely no difference to economic success. Two, post-1980 changes, the war against trade unions, privatisation, the dominance of finance, have, despite eliminating inefficiencies in production, damaged the economy. Three, capitalism as an economic system is declining. It is simply less able to deliver economic growth, jobs and prosperity for most people.

But rather than face these issues, the right-wing (and not just the right-wing), unconsciously echoing Bertolt Brecht’s desire to “dissolve the people and elect another”, blames people for just not being good enough for the demands of the economy. The real tragedy is that, while this agenda dovetails perfectly with the corporate desire for a more efficient and obedient workforce, it obscures the causes of economic distress, which annoyingly, will not go away.


  1. Is there any measure we can use to compare crony capitolism across the 168 nations of the planet?

    1. None that I know of, largely because I think crony capitalism is basically a bogus concept. Crony capitalism is real-world capitalism.
      As defined by its proponents (usually right-wingers) it comprises getting ahead by knowing someone, not by merit. And also, large enterprises gaining favours from the govt. But the latter is always the case. Large companies (and small companies for that matter) don't tend to like free competition.