The central argument of The Acquisitive Society (1921) is that Britain is infested with a false philosophy that prizes material accumulation over civilised values. This is not merely a modern occurrence, but one that can be traced back to the 17th century, with the gradual displacement of a body of ethics from the economic realm that affirmed our essential humanity by limiting exploitation and preserving communal ties.
Prior to the ascent of capitalism, economical activity was merely one compartment of existence, with its operation regulated, albeit imperfectly, by an overriding moral consensus; the retreat of the Church and the Christian Casuistry, allowed the market to be magnified to generate a monomaniacal society in which all aspects of life are subjugated by economic concerns. This materialism results in an atomised society in which social duties are subsumed by individual rights; where human beings are reduced from the ends of ethical consideration to mere tools of accumulation; where private property is sanctified to ensure that it is preserved to benefit a narrow section of the population, and society is scarred by class resentment and division.
Tawney's solution is for the creation of a Functional Society, which is socialistic in all but name. This new society will be animated by the principle of social purpose, with all actions directed to the fulfilment of obligations to the community, rather than self aggrandisement. Although Tawney is primarily concerned to identify the broad philosophical contours of this society, he does offer practical prescriptions. First, the commanding heights of the economy should be brought into public ownership, with transport, arms production and energy deemed too important to be left to the market. Tawney, as distinct from other notable socialists, cautions against elevating nationalisation to an end in itself; rather it is a means to deliver beneficial social outcomes to be judged according to this criterion. Second, private ownership of productive property is acceptable providing that its meets social objectives and its owners are motivated by the principle of social service. Third, that within public and private organisations, powers are devolved to the workers, primarily through trade unions, to play an active role in running organisations, with parliamentary oversight ensuring that producer power does not encroach on the interests of the consumer.
The Acquisitive Society is remarkably prescient in its principles, whilst being anachronistic in its prescriptions. In the current climate of economic turbulence, free market fundamentalism is under a sustained assault for the very reasons outlined in Tawney's work. There is an emerging consensus that the market has over reached itself, not merely because of its failure to generate sustainable growth, but because it has encouraged forms of human behaviour, like greed and selfishness, that are morally and socially unacceptable. Within this discourse of social and economic decay, Tawney's appeal for a more humane society focussed on collective social concerns does resonant. In terms of his prescriptions, the period since the publication of The Acquisitive Society provides little evidence that public ownership or workers co-operatives have been particularly successful in delivering social objectives, let alone sustaining themselves as efficient economic organisations. Tawney's faith in these socialistic ideas reflects the tenor of the times in which he wrote, when capitalism was perceived to be imperilled and doctrines like guild socialism were flourishing. Although governments are once more employing nationalisation, it is being adopted as an emergency measure, rather than as a long term tool of socialist renewal.
At times of capitalist crisis, it is Marx, with his doctrine of the inevitability of collapse, that marauds round the pages of our newspapers as the Prophet, only to return to the dustbin of history as capitalism re-emerges renewed and reformed. When we emerge from the tumult, rather than substituting one fundamentalism for another, it is to figures like Tawney that we should look to for inspiration in reconstituting our society. In The Acquisitive Society, and the superior Equality, Tawney, does not provide a systematic theory that is devoid of errors and misconceptions, but he does outline a broad philosophical disposition that is striking in its humanity, and salutary in its promotion of social purpose.
on 24 June 2011
In the 1920's Tawney warned readers of the dangers of important public debates becoming driven by instrumentalist agendas about 'falling standards','utility' and'employability'. He warned that a danger existed particularly in the UK where the general population is more concerned with the state of the roads than with their destinations. Tawney worried that important issues such as what the purposes of education are in a free and democratic society would be submerged in media-driven rhetorical thunder about education being solely for 'getting a good job'.
Shaull (1996) argued in the introduction to Freire's book of that year, that
education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.
Though a little dated in its' language the book is highly relevant in its' issues. Highly recommend it to all concerned with the direction of their future.
on 12 August 2006
R H Tawney's "The Acquisitive Society" is the seminal critique of the economic culture of "profit before people", and although written more than 80 years ago, its analysis still stands as a fundamental challenge to the free market profit driven economy of the present day. Indeed, in many ways, Tawney's critique is perhaps more incisive now than it was in the 1920's. For example,
"the admiration of society is directed towards
those who get,not towards those who give"
"there is no guarantee that gain bears any relation
to service or power to responsibility"
truths well borne out by the current privatisation of public services, where, too often, both public function and the payment of staff have stagnated to the advantage of the profits of the operating companies.
The book should be required reading for any student of economics, and although Towney's slightly laboured language and love of long sentences can be distracting, the book would also appeal to anyone who has acquired sufficient experience of life to recognise the failings of the status quo.
Read today, "The Acquisitive Society" is a reminder that the core values of Parliament have always been to protect political and corporate financial interests, regardless of the negative repercussions this has on society. Towney anticipates the renown comment of Thatcher that there is no society", and the profound effects the notion that "profit is the value by which all else must be judged" has on the psyche of a nation.